Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.
About six years ago, users of the popular liberal blog Daily Kos did an experiment. A few commenters and bloggers decided it would be fun to organize a conference for the progressive netroots, and the inaugural gathering of “YearlyKos” in Las Vegas turned out ot be a big success, drawing presidential candidates and many leading liberals. This week, activists are gathering in Providence for the sixth such conference, now renamed “Netroots Nation,” and a range of up and coming progressives are signed up for the ride.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is delivering the opening keynote on Thursday night (video below), illustrating the interest in state-level politics and the ongoing hangover from the mortgage crisis. Schneiderman has both battled and cooperated with the White House over mortgage reform.
Other keynotes that reflect this year’s politics, from a panel discussion of the policies for “an economy of the 99 percent” to a discussion of the “war” on women and an address on criminal justice and racial equality issues by Rashad Robinson, who heads up ColorOfChange, a group that mixes the politics of the NAACP with the tactics of MoveOn.org.
Live video feeds for the keynotes and several panels are posted below, and The Nation will feature coverage from the conference throughout the weekend.
Netroots Schedule here.
Jason Horowitz, the enterprising Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Mitt Romney’s high school “pranks,” cracked another window into camp Romney on Friday. Romney aides challenge media coverage of Mormonism by asking journalists to compare their stories to hypothetical coverage of Jewish candidates.
Horowitz explained the approach in an opinion column:
“Our test to see if a similar story would be written about others’ religion is to substitute ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish,’ ” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul wrote in objection to [an] article…about the candidate’s role as a church leader in Boston. She pointed out a passage that explained [the Mormon] belief that Christ’s true church was restored after centuries of apostasy when the 19th-century prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he discovered in Upstate New York. “Would you write this sentence in describing the Jewish faith: ‘Jews believe their prophet Moses was delivered tablets on a mountain top directly from G-d after he appeared to him in a burning bush,’ ” Saul wrote in a November e-mail. “Of course not, yet you reference a similar story in Mormonism.”
Saul has a point. While religious pluralism is a popular ideal, and the press strives for objectivity in campaign coverage, some religions are covered as more exotic or dangerous than others. This cycle, few major candidates have been pressed as frequently about the tenets of their faith as Romney. President Obama, for his part, has been repeatedly “accused” of practicing Islam (as if that were a bad thing). The notion of a Jewish “test” for campaign coverage will rub some the wrong way,* but it may also bluntly cut through the semiotics of debates over balanced religious treatment.
For example, many media types (and liberals) defended the infamous New Yorker cover lampooning Muslim caricatures about Obama by arguing it was (a) just light satire or (b) actually a spoof of the people attacking Islam—a chance to “ridicule the lies,” (as one New Yorker writer argued).
But would that Muslim-garbed, fist-bumping, flag-burning, bin Laden–saluting cartoon have run on the cover if it featured a comparable bevy of anti-Semitic canards? Very doubtful.
Of course, Romney’s faith—and its potential role in his values and philosophy—is a long way from religious satire and attacks. Many argue that he runs on the idea of his faith, including ads touting membership in the “same church” his “entire life,” without explaining what that actually entails. Horowitz asked for a reaction to the debate from Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish American to run on a national ticket. (Like Obama, Liberman also has an unusual middle name, Isadore, that he does not use in political life.)
“The reality is that the more you talk about the details of somebody’s religion,” Lieberman said, “the more you encourage voters to vote on the religion rather than on the person and his policies.” That seems to capture Romney’s political calculus, which drives the press strategy to beat back theology stories.
Finally, while many have speculated on whether anti-Mormon bias will hurt Romney in November, the larger trends suggest it will probably not be a deciding factor. Of the ten states with the highest church attendance in the nation, nine are red states, firmly in the GOP column, and one leans Republican (North Carolina). Meanwhile, the swing states that will decide the race, like Ohio and Colorado, tend to be less driven by religious issues and more focused on the economy.
* Horowitz reports more examples from the Romney campaign’s test, which may work better as a general point than in an extensive rewrite:
Saul, the campaign spokeswoman, combed through last fall’ s Post story and substituted every reference to Mormonism and the Mormon Church, producing more Semitic-flavored sentences about a “young synagogue leader named Mitt Romney,” and “a group of devout but independent Jew women” who all belonged to “the Synagogue of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her version observed that Romney “was far from the only young and brilliant Jew on Harvard’s campus” and ended with one devout woman’s trip to “the Jew Temple in neighboring Belmont, where she performs proxy baptisms for the deceased and other synagogue rites.”
WITNESS, an organization founded twenty years ago to catalog human rights abuses, is entering the YouTube era. The group is launching a dedicated human rights channel on the popular video site.
The channel aims to spotlight “underexposed stories often absent from the mainstream media,” says Sam Gregory, a program director at WITNESS. The idea is to do human rights advocacy on a journalistic baseline—the channel is co-produced with Storyful, a group of journalists that bill themselves as “field producers” for social media. They will “source and verify” all videos on the channel.
Like other branded channels, YouTube is promoting this initiative, including a special launch at Google’s “Internet at Liberty” conference. YouTube does not claim to play an editorial role in the project, however, and it has struggled with some videos of human rights abuses in the past, such as images of torture in Syria that it initially removed as a violation of the company’s “policy on shocking and disgusting content.” So while some press accounts of the new channel suggest it is a YouTube operation—“YouTube Launches Human Rights Channel,” the Huffington Post declared on Friday—it’s more likely that WITNESS will have to navigate and negotiate as Google, YouTube’s parent company, applies its policies to troubled regions around the globe.
For most people in the field, of course, the prospects for exposing human rights abuses via online video fundamentally changed in March 2012, when the “Kony 2012” video gave a whole new meaning to “going viral.” That video has now been viewed over 107 million times, despite focusing on historical abuses that had no news hook and zero notoriety in the Western World. The video introduced Joseph Kony to millions of people, raised millions of dollars, and then led to a personal meltdown, public backlash and meta-debate over digital activism. (All in about six days, too.) As a matter of web strategy, though, the video was a sleek, dramatic one-off presentation. It asked people to share and encouraged them to feel good about themselves. Developing an audience for an entire channel devoted to human rights is the other end of the organizing spectrum. It is likely to take a lot of original programming, for engaging people, and a big budget for content and outreach. So far, WITNESS is not spending money on advertising or outreach for the channel, a spokeswoman told The Nation, but the group is promoting the project to its 330,000 Twitter followers and “constantly evaluating what are the right choice points in terms of building community.”
Currently, the featured video on the channel is a fifteen-minute feature about a human rights advocate in Bahrain, Zaunab Al-Khawaja. It was produced by another human organization, The Front Line Defenders, and has drawn about 50,000 views since it was first posted last December.
The Obama campaign launched a national effort to counteract voter-identification laws on Friday, rolling out a bilingual online portal, Gottavote.org, and a fifty-state system for educating and turning out Obama supporters.
This is an unusually early time for a presidential campaign to focus on voter education, reflecting the concern among Democrats about new challenges to voting access in several key states. “We want to start as early possible,” explained Michael Blake, the campaign’s deputy director of Operation Vote, on a press call announcing the initiative.
Visitors to GottaVote.org are automatically directed to a state-specific page with local rules for registration and a checklist of “what to bring” to the polls. The campaign also uses the site to harvest phone numbers and e-mails, offering to text or e-mail voting reminders for Election Day. (Over a million people signed up for the 2008 campaign’s text messages.) The portal tries to cut through the thicket of voting rules with clear information about how to follow the law and be counted.
“Voting is easy when you have the facts,” the campaign declares. Even viewed through GottaVote’s user-friendly glasses, however, the ease depends most on where you live. Visitors to the page for Washington state will be relieved—there are no ID requirements and no polling places to find. It’s all vote-by-mail. The checklist for Arizona, on the other hand, is daunting:
Make sure you bring:
One ID with your current name, address, and photograph including:
- A valid Arizona driver license
- A valid Arizona non-operating identification license
- A tribal enrollment card or other form of tribal identification
- A valid United States federal, state, or local government issued identification
- Or two different forms of non-photo ID with your current name and address on them.
- Utility bills, dated within 90 days of the date of the election. A utility bill may be for electric, gas, water, solid waste, sewer, telephone, cellular phone, or cable television
- A bank or credit union statement dated within 90 days of the date of the election
- A valid Arizona Vehicle Registration
- An Indian census card
- A property tax statement of the elector’s residence
- A tribal enrollment card or other form of tribal identification
- An Arizona vehicle insurance card
- A Recorder’s Certificate
- A valid United States federal, state, or local government issued identification, including a voter registration card issued by the County Recorder
- Any mailing to the elector marked “Official Election Material”
It’s also a far cry from last cycle. In 2008, the Obama campaign’s voter-education efforts focused more on dispelling rumors that people needed identification to vote. In one of its most effective, below-the-radar videos, Jay-Z assured Michigan residents that they could vote without a license.
“Even if you don’t have ID, you can still vote—don’t worry about that,” said the famous rapper, dressed in a hoodie in front of several Obama yard signs. I asked Obama aides about the challenge of updating those kind of materials, but they cast the new program as an inevitable part of campaign outreach.
“Voter education is a constant process,” said Bob Bauer, the top lawyer for the campaign and a former White House Counsel. “To the extent that the laws change, new laws have to be built into the voter protection effort,” he added. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are also trying to directly enlarge voting access. Congressmen John Lews and Steny Hoyer introduced the Voter Empowerment Act this week, as The Nation’s Ari Berman reported.
The Obama campaign is also leading a “weekend of action” on May 19 for voter registration and education. During the announcement, Bauer sounded more philosophical than frustrated about the new barriers to voting rights. “We’ve never solved anything in this coutry with less democracy,” he said.
As soon as President Obama endorsed gay marriage last week, the principles have been mixed with the politics. And that’s actually a good thing.
On Tuesday, the political class fixated on a new poll showing that almost 70 percent of Americans think politics drove Obama’s decision. It’s the kind of data point that politicos love—nevermind that it’s a methodologically flawed snapshot of a guess at someone else’s motivations. Even the New York Times, which commissioned the poll, seemed to agree. The Grey Lady plopped its story about evolution skepticism on page A17. No matter, it was the Internet’s top political story by 11 am.
Conservatives are declaring that Obama’s move has “backfired,” while many Democrats keep straining to find a genuine conversion—one blogger reacted to the Times poll by crediting Obama for “a developmental kind of flip-flopping”—“building, growing, and expressing more nuance and political clarity as the years roll by.” This kind of debate misses the larger point.
If the president did endorse gay marriage “for politics”— beacause it’s increasingly popular and decreasingly toxic —that in itself marks tremendous progress for the nation. Our political discourse is so driven by personality, however, it seems ordinary to plumb the depths of Obama’s personal conversion. (He has also invited it with the story he’s telling.) But I don’t think his personal feelings matter much, or those of Dick Cheney, Ken Mehlman or the growing list of politicians who find marriage inequality untenable. Nor does it matter how Bill Clinton’s heart has evolved from 1996, when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, to 2004, when he privately urged John Kerry to support a Federal Marriage Amendment, to May 2012, when he publicly campaigned against North Carolina’s Amendment One. What matters is that the nation is undergoing a rapid breakthrough and is increasingly ready for marriage equality.
So the story is not fundamentally about Obama, it’s about the public, and the culture, and the gay rights movement. The historical significance of the president’s announcement is not his personal narrative, it’s the consequential fact that an incumbent president has placed marriage equality within the center of a major political party and, by extension, as a baseline in the party’s platform. By contrast, none of the major Democratic presidential candidates held this position in 2008, even when pressed at the first-ever presidential debate devoted to gay rights.
In American politics, there’s a recurring fantasy, nurtured by the press, about “courageous” politicians who do the right thing against their political interest. But really, isn’t it even more encouraging when the right thing has just become good politics?
Photo credit: Steve Rhoades
President Obama does not usually accuse Republicans of being too hawkish. From ordering the killings of bin Laden and al-Awlaki to doubling troops in Afghanistan, Obama has been assertive with American power, and his re-election campaign talks far more about Afghanistan than Iraq. Yet breaking with those political dynamics, Obama has decided to prioritize civil liberties over claims of national security in an escalating battle with Congressional Republicans.
The issue is significant but largely obscure: a proposed bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), that would create new powers for technology companies and the government to gather and share information about American citizens. The information would include the kind of private data that is currently subject to warrants, which ensure some independent court oversight. And if a future president wanted to apply an aggressive interpretation of the bill, the powers might be invoked for massive surveillance with no link to national security.
Still, the legislation does aim at a real threat. The prospect of cyber attacks on infrastructure, government or companies inside the United States is at an all-time high. And Congress has been slow to update federal law on this score.
The National Security Act, which passed after World War II and governs today’s military and intelligence apparatus, has never been amended to address cybercrime. Meanwhile, substantial cyber attacks have recently occurred in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Estonia and India, to name a few examples. Richard Clarke, a respected former counterterrorism official and author of Cyber War: The Next National Security Threat and What to Do About It, argues that Internet service providers should play a larger role in filtering online activity for security threats.
That is part of the approach in CISPA, and companies like Facebook and Microsoft have backed the bill because it provides a framework for them to legally share threat information, both with other companies and the government.
Under current law, companies can be liable under private lawsuits for releasing certain customer data. That may sound like a relatively minor concern, but similar rules were a costly and significant priority for telecommunications companies in the battle over the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. (Congress ultimately granted them retroactive immunity, which helped shield the surveillance from legal oversight.)
CISPA defines threats so broadly, however, that it could amount to a privatized surveillance of all electronic communications—the emails people read and write, the websites they visit and even information stored privately online. “All private electronic communications could be obtained by the government [under CISPA],” argues the American Library Association, and used “for many purposes” other than security. Which brings us back to Obama.
The librarians’ civil liberties concerns found support at the White House, which has issued an official policy statement “strongly” opposing CISPA in its current form.
“The bill would allow broad sharing of information with governmental entities without establishing requirements for both industry and the Government to minimize and protect personally identifiable information,” says the administration. Citing “privacy” and “civil liberties” concerns, the policy statement concludes that CISPA does not have “sufficient limitations on the sharing” of personal information nor safeguards to ensure “data is used only for appropriate purposes.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, in contrast to Obama’s past support for broad telecom immunity, the White House also explicitly singled out CISPA’s immunity clause as “inappropriate.”
Broad immunity would “shield companies from any suits where a company’s actions are based on cyber threat information,” the administration stated, even if the conduct “violated Federal criminal law or results in damage or loss of life.” (The proposed blanket immunity for any potential cyber or security-related death does seem like both terrible policy and political overreaching.) Some Democratic critics go much further; Congressman Jared Polis argues that the bill would literally roll back “every single privacy law ever enacted in the name of cybersecurity.”
On Saturday, the Republican-controlled House passed CISPA by a wide margin. Now it sits in the Senate, where related bills have been proposed by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Harry Reid has suggested there could be a vote as early as this month. Passing legislation matching the House bill would seem to court a veto from President Obama, however. Few observers are optimistic about Republicans making significant compromises.
Obama has not publicly explained why civil liberties concerns played such a strong role in his position on this bill, especially in contrast to telecom immunity, let alone his policies on assassination and drone attacks. The president has not been asked, either, which may provide one clue to the politics at play.
Even after passing the House, the White House press pool has never asked a single question about CISPA at the daily press briefing, let alone in discussion with the president or senior officials. Out of all public transcripts and statements, there is only a single CISPA reference on the White House website, from the administration’s proactive policy announcement. (There are over seventy references to “long form birth certificate,” to compare another topic.) In standoffs between civil liberties and national security claims, sometimes it’s easiest to do the right thing when no one is paying attention.
Photo Credit: Csete
The Obama campaign launched a harsh and potentially controversial foreign policy attack against Mitt Romney on Friday, suggesting the presumptive Republican nominee would not have made the “hard” decision to order the operation against Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan.
The charge, narrated by former President Bill Clinton in what the campaign called “never-before-seen footage,” was leveled in a somber, ninety-second video released on YouTube. The Obama campaign has aggressively used YouTube to reach both base and swing voters this campaign cycle, and the combative video is sure to generate (free) media attention. The campaign distributed a press release about the spot Friday morning—most of the campaign’s videos do not receive such promotion—and within an hour the Romney campaign responded, calling it “sad” to see Obama exploiting “an event that unified our country to once again divide us.”
In the bin Laden video, former President Clinton flatly revisits the substantive and political risks that Obama faced in ordering the mission. The target could have turned out not to have been bin Laden, Clinton says, or the Navy Seals might have been “captured or killed.” Yet Obama took a harder and more honorable path, Clinton declares, followed by a rhetorical question that flashes across the screen, asking, “Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?” Adding oppo to injury, the video cites Romney’s 2007 criticism of Obama’s vow to strike Al Qaeda facilities in Pakistan if neccessary—a question of strategy and sovereignty that was a major policy debate in the 2008 Democratic primary and presidential election.
The focus on bin Laden comes a day after Vice President Biden headlined a speech questioning Romney’s foreign policy positions, and fits Obama’s longstanding emphasis on running on foreign policy issues, not away from them—a break from the “inoculation” strategy favored by many Democratic candidates. So while Obama always outlined his opposition to the Iraq War, he also pledged to increase forces in Afghanistan, project special forces wherever necessary and continue a range of national security policies associated with the Bush administration. (Many of the tradeoffs have been troubling.) But if there was any question about whether he would be shy about seeking the political dividends from that agenda in a general election, this opening salvo makes it clear he is eager to put Mitt Romney on the defensive.
For all the griping about media bias in politics, good data is in short supply. Every four years, however, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center releases exhaustive, quantitative reports on how the press covers the presidential campaign. Their new report, out Monday, shows that the largest bias this year did not favor an ideology or candidate—though Santorum never got much love—but favored the coverage of the horserace and personal issues over public policy.
The press covered the horserace seven times more than domestic issues in the GOP primary. That made it the most covered topic by far, as Pew reports in this chart:
While it’s hard to see what voters are supposed to base their decisions on if most coverage is about tactics, not the actual issues in the race, Pew notes that 2012 was actually better on this score than last cycle. Then, strategy made up a whopping 80 percent of press coverage about the GOP field, and 78 percent for the Democrats. That may have been because the 2008 race had even more drama between the candidates.
As for the overall tone of candidate coverage, Pew found that Romney received primarily positive press once he established himself as a likely nominee (after the Michigan primary), which reflects the emphasis on the horse race. (Leading candidates get better coverage, regardless of their views, when the race is covered primarily as a game.) The exception was Santorum, who got mostly negative coverage even as he was the second most successful competitor.
“The former Pennsylvania senator was never able to sustain substantially positive coverage for more than two weeks,” explains the report, “and often not more than one.” Santorum did get a boost in overall coverage during his victories, and he drew the majority of coverage as a lead newsmaker through much of February and March.
There was one candidate who drew even more negative coverage than Santorum. It was not Newt Gingrich, who frequently complained about a raw deal from the press. It was not Ron Paul, whose loyal constituency was often underplayed, especially on the influential Fox News channel. No, according to the data, it was that other guy. “Of all the presidential candidates studied in this report, only one figure did not have a single week in 2012 when positive coverage exceeded negative coverage—the incumbent, Democrat Barack Obama,” reports Pew. Here’s the chart over time:
No one talks about an “anti-incumbent” bias. But actually being in charge tends to invite plenty of criticism.
John Edwards’s trial for campaign finance violations begins Monday. Government prosecutors will build on their unusual theory from last year’s indictment—which charged that the Edwards campaign should have treated payments to the candidate’s mistress as official campaign expenses. Many election law experts criticized that idea as an unprecedented overreach, and in a sign of how this prosecution is scrambling the politics that came before it, the conservative National Review just published a spirited editorial defending Edwards against the charges.
The editorial bears down on a point that Edwards’s lawyers are sure to make at trial: show me the money.
“Because none of the money [for the mistress] went to the campaign,” National Review explains, “and none of the money went for campaign expenses—inasmuch as maintaining a mistress is not a campaign expense—it is difficult to see why this should be prosecuted as a campaign-finance violation.”
Prosecutors counter that Edwards’s desire to run as a “family” candidate made hiding the mistress an electoral necessity. The problem with that, as I wrote when the indictment was released, is that federal rules actually run in the opposite direction. They specifically prohibit the expensing of any costs that “would exist even in the absence of the candidacy” (according to the FEC).
In other words, if a candidate paid for a mistress’s hotel rooms out of campaign coffers, that would also seem to be a violation of campaign finance law. It’s usually a bad sign if the prosecution’s theory is that the defendant broke the law no matter what he did.
Important caveats remain, of course. Edwards’s personal behavior was despicable, a point National Review made with gusto in its editorial (“the Dorian Gray of the Democratic party,” “one of the most loathsome characters in American politics,” “a preening, moralizing fraud”). The trial has not begun yet, new facts could emerge and there may be other laws that were broken separate from the novel theory on campaign expenses. But this case is troubling regardless of one’s feelings about Edwards; it suggests just how distorted and downright broken the regulation of campaign spending is in this country. A widely reviled former candidate faces jail time for money spent on a mistress without campaign expenditures, but candidates and Super PACs can legally raise vast sums from parties with far more direct interests before government without limitation or, in many cases, disclosure requirements. Legislating public funding for all federal elections would cut down on money’s influence in politics a lot more than prosecuting personal payments as campaign contributions, but it would be a lot harder to do.
Rick Santorum was the last (viable) man standing in the GOP primary, so his exit from the race marks the end of a primary season that has been varied but, for Republican voters and observers alike, rather unsatisfying. Still, Santorum was a superlative candidate in many ways.
He was probably the most ideologically extreme, the most consistent and clearly the most efficient—spending less than half as much money per delegate as Mitt Romney (a mismatch emphasized by The Nation’s Melissa Harris Perry). In a year of showmen and carnival barkers, Santorum also had one of the toughest relationships with the media, a crucial constituency in presidential politics.
Santorum was barely covered in the 2011 preseason, while the press lavished attention on Rick Perry (0 delegates), Herman Cain (0 delegates), Michelle Bachmann (0 delegates) and several non-candidates (Trump, Palin, Christie et al.). Reporters typically object that it’s hard to know whom to cover before voting begins, but Santorum’s path undermines that defense. He essentially tied for first in Iowa, the pivotal opening contest, and was the only candidate besides Romney who built a consistent following across the country. But most of the press continued to prioritize more interesting, less viable challengers, like Gingrich. It’s bad enough that the media focus more on the horse race than public policy—four times more this cycle, according to data released Tuesday by George Mason University—but it should try to get the horse race part right. And that doesn’t even count the elephant in the room.
Fox News is the most important information axis in Republican politics. Over half of Tea Party Republicans say it’s their “primary source” of news, according to Pew, and Fox also nursed a potential conflict of interest as the former employer of Santorum and Gingrich. The channel may not have loved Romney, but it gave him plenty of attention. Santorum, by contrast, was virtually shut out of coverage unless he was personally appearing on the channel. Last week, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review documented that Santorum was barely mentioned on Fox broadcasts throughout the entire day of programming. Why? Many speculated that Fox determined Romney was the most viable candidate to beat Obama, and it was time to get on with it.
Campaigns struggling with fundraising are especially reliant on “earned” media coverage, so Fox’s decision took a big bite out of Santorum’s momentum. Last month, he took the unusual step of publicly complaining that Romney had “Fox News shilling for him every day.” After Santorum’s exit on Tuesday, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Fox has no interest in rehiring Santorum, partly based on that remark. If Fox does decline to rehire Santorum, despite his increased fame and relevance, the move would fit neatly with David Frum’s maxim that “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” He should have added that it’s at-will employment.