Media, politics and culture.
It’s been another great year for hard-hitting or wonderfully creative documentary films, from Sarah Polley on her family to Jeremy Scahill on targeted killing abroad (and need I mention my own on Beethoven’s Ninth?).
Last night I watched another film on the just-announced shortlist of finalists for this year’s Academy Award for the genre: Blackfish.
As you may have heard, it takes a deep (so to speak) look at the practice, over the past four decades, of capturing orcas in the wild and hauling them to the Sea Worlds of the world. The film raises alarms not just about these magnificent creatures but the danger to trainers and performers at the water expos. We see shocking footage of numerous deaths or near-death experiences of humans leading to a current legal action that has, for now, curtailed the man-to-whale contact in the shows.
But at the heart of it, and I do mean heart, is the foul practice of capturing the orcas at sea and breaking up their families (among the tightest in creation). Who knew that, like Indian tribes of yore, each grouping of orcas has their own “language”? That they can live for 100 years? That the mothers and kids stay together their entire lives (yes, as often the case, the dads are around but not central). And so on.
You may shake with anger and sadness on viewing this film, or at least give your cat or dog an extra hug.
Here’s the trailer:
As most of you probably know by now, Seymour Hersh has written a major piece on the claims by the US (and others) that the pro-Assad forces used Sarin gas in Syria, and President Obama’s eventual response. This came after the article was turned down both by The Washington Post (which planned to publish it) and Hersh’s frequent home, The New Yorker.
Months ago I was among those strongly criticizing media coverage of what I saw as hyped, unproven (if not necessarily false) claims that nearly took us to war. After much protest from the left, and some on right (plus many MPs in the UK), Obama pulled back, somewhat mysteriously—and Assad then agreed to dismantle his arsenal. Soon Iran’s leaders were also responding favorably on nuclear inspections.
In Hersh’s view, those second thoughts by Obama were likely sparked not so much by antiwar protest, but the president realizing that he was being rolled with false or unproven intelligence by those those wanting us to bomb-bomb-bomb Syria. Hersh’s edgy investigative reporting is usually proven right, of course, but in recent years, one must admit, sometimes wrong. For myself, I’ve never claimed a belief that rebels, not the Assad forces, launched the attacks, but at a minimum the doubts about the whole tragedy—and the further deaths from our bombing and hardening of Assad and Iranian attitudes—should have precluded war.
Today, Hersh explained his findings and sourcing—and the turndowns from the Post and New Yorker—on Democracy Now! He admitted it was foolish to believe that The Washington Post would publish his piece. He stood by his reporting after Amy Goodman read the firm denials from a National Intelligence spokesman. See clips below. Hersh referred to himself as a “creepy troublemaker.”
The White House rejects the Hersh claims. Several news outlets have questioned Hersh’s (largely anonymous) sourcing and claimed that he ignores much fresh evidence. A nicely-balanced critique here from Ryan Goodman. The longest take I’ve seen is in Foreign Policy. Eliot Higgins concludes:
While Hersh rightly expresses concern about the way in which the U.S. government’s narrative of the Aug. 21 was built, significant information can be gathered from open sources about this conflict—information that he appears to be lacking. In the future, open-source information may become even more important for understanding hard-to-access conflict zones, and learning how to use it effectively should become a key skill for any investigative journalist.
Hersh later appeared on CNN with Jake Tapper.
Bob Dreyfuss explores the effects on Syrian diplomacy of the US-Iran accords.
David Simon, former newspaper reporter and creator/writer/showrunner of Homicide, The Corner, The Wire and Treme, is known for his often angry denunciations of modern-day captialist America and the staggering gap between the well-off and the struggling. Last month he appeared at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia, where he spoke at length on these themes.
It took a month, but on Sunday The Guardian published a highly edited version on its site—under the title, “There are now two Americas. My country is a horror show”—which drew wide attention. As far as I can see, no one posted the video of his entire talk, however, along with questions from a host and the audience. So here’s one excerpt from the edited piece and then the full video.
Societies are exactly what they sound like. If everybody is invested and if everyone just believes that they have “some”, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to get the same amount. It doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be people who are the venture capitalists who stand to make the most. It’s not each according to their needs or anything that is purely Marxist, but it is that everybody feels as if, if the society succeeds, I succeed, I don’t get left behind. And there isn’t a society in the west now, right now, that is able to sustain that for all of its population.
And so in my country you’re seeing a horror show. You’re seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you’re seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You’re seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we’ve put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.
We have become something other than what we claim for the American dream and all because of our inability to basically share, to even contemplate a socialist impulse.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, supports another potentially disastrous cut to food stamps, writes Greg Kaufmann.
When I was senior editor at Crawdaddy—for most of the 1970s—I convinced Gil Scott-Heron to become an occasional columnist. He was well-known, in certain circles, for his “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and for a later cult hit “The Bottle” and excellent album Winter in America, but he was hardly a commercial superstar. Crawdaddy never cared about that and was always eager to promote any kind of lefty musician. Gil’s antinuclear epic “We Almost Lost Detroit” remains relevant to this day (I linked to it here after the Fukushima disaster).
And who can forget “Whitey on the Moon”?
I only met Gil a couple of times, including once backstage at a Central Park concert where I picked up a column (it seemed the only way I’d ever get it). But we chatted on the phone a few times and corresponded. He was a bright and engaging guy, and about to go a little more mainstream with his semi-hit song “Johannesburg.” Before its release, he wrote about it for me at Crawdaddy. It was based on his mid-1970s trip there, with Nelson Mandela a long way from being freed, and gave us the lyrics before the single came out.
“Hey brother have you heard the word—Johannesburg!” Brothers were “defying the man” and Gil hated “when the blood starts flowing” but he was “glad to see resistance growing.” And hey, weren’t some aspects of US ciites, such as Detroit, “like Johannesburg”? One of the great songs of the 1970s. R.I.P. Mandela—and Gil.
Douglas Foster eulogizes Nelson Mandela.
I’m not a big Coen brothers fan, but for nearly two years I have followed the filming and unveiling of their Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens tomorrow in a few theaters. That’s partly because I lived and worked in Greenwich Village for many years, but more than that: I am old enough (ouch) to remember watching Hootenanny on TV every week—not knowing what to make of some guy named Pete Seeger getting banned—and then growing absorbed in the early careers of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
The New York Times already has a review online. It’s quite favorable. We already knew the T-Bone Burnett music, for it was swell, based on excerpts on YouTube and live shows. Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir helped inspire it (though he was quite different from the main character, trust me), has also gotten a good deal of well-deserved ink this week.
Dylan’s publicity this week has been of another sort (a ridiculous “hate crime” charge in France). I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t say how strongly, and fairly, it portrays the folk protest/politics of the early-’60s era, but we know it’s in there.
A Showtime “concert” doc is coming a week from Friday—see trailer below, featuring a Mumford and the great Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. And below that, a full clip from the film of trio (with “Llewyn” joined by Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver) doing a goofy “Please Mr. Kennedy”:
Pierre Omidyar, new-media publisher (with Glenn Greenwald and others) and First Amendment advocate, last night at The Huffington Post revisited his former company’s move to block donations to WikiLeaks three years ago. We speak, of course, of PayPal. That affair has prompted one of several criticisms leveled at Greenwald of late (see my piece here this week) and now Omidyar writes at length about the sensitive issue.
Omidyar explains how he joined an editorial about the WikiLeaks protest (at his Honolulu newspaper), but then hits the excessive Anonymous efforts to crash and otherwise hurt PayPal. This comes as the trial of the “PayPal 14” is about to begin. Omidyar seems to argue for leniency in any sentencing of those found guilty, especially since they are standing in, one might say, for the actions of thousands of others. “Their case as well as PayPal’s actions in 2010 raise important questions about press freedoms and the nature of online protests,” he explains.
And now WikiLeaks responds to his piece on Twitter, including: “Appreciate some of the other comments but they are undermined by the central issue of the blockade being falsely presented…. As far as we are aware the PayPal blockade of WikiLeaks has never been lifted. No direct transactions to WL. You list 3rd parties.”
Also yesterday, PandoDaily, which had published the major Mark Ames critique of Greenwald and his alleged “privatizing” of and “profiteering” off the Snowden leaks (which Greenwald then rejected in his full response), posted a pro-Greenwald piece by David Sirota.
Sirota charges that a “smear campaign” against Greenwald “is, in short, an effort by those reliant on an old power structure and outdated media business models to selfishly maintain that structure and those models—journalism, facts, and democracy be damned.” And he contrasts the treatment of Greenwald with that of Bart Gellman of The Washington Post, who has also made wide use of the Snowden docs but as an “insider” has drawn much less criticism.
Greg Mitchell surveys the dustups between Glenn Greenwald and his critics.
At his personal blog yesterday Glenn Greenwald published a lengthy response to PandoDaily’s Mark Ames and other critics who have hit him lately for “privatizing” and allegedly “profiteering” off Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and even for launching a new venture funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Some have raised concerns about Omidyar’s past business ventures, along with his former company PayPal’s blocking donations to WikiLeaks.
Greenwald had already responded with numerous tweets, such as: “In a week where we published docs in Holland, Norway, Canada, Germany and HuffPost: seems a bad week to claim docs are ‘monopolized.’ ” He also pointed out that few complained when, say, Bob Woodward made many millions writing books that disclosed state secrets. But now he’s replied in full.
Just for starters, Greenwald hits other writers/edtiors—such as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall—for hypocrisy since they also do work funded by billionaires. Example:
I have nothing but contempt for the DC functionaries who are cynically embracing that Pando post that holds out the WikiLeaks dump-it-all model as the ideal—the Josh Marshalls and Fran Townsends of the world—as though they would prefer we did that instead. Those are the very same people who hate WikiLeaks, and would be first in line to accuse us of recklessness and likely demand our prosecution if we followed that model (here, for instance, is a CNN debate I did in 2010 with the very same Fran Townsend when I defended Julian Assange after he signed a $1.2 million book deal).
Marshall then replied on Twitter: “Notable: this twitter firestorm & @ggreenwald’s new (as usual misleading) attacks have been triggered by my simply tweeting link to article.” The critical Ames article, that is.
It is absolutely the case that I consider the opportunity to help build this new media venture to be a once-in-a-career dream opportunity. That’s because the organization is being built from the start to support, sustain and encourage truly independent, adversarial journalism. It has the backing and is being built by someone whom I am absolutely convinced is dedicated to this model of independent, adversarial journalism. It has the real potential to enable innovative and fearless journalism….
Being skeptical and asking questions about any new media organization is completely appropriate. I’m sure I’d be doing the same thing of other new organizations. But we haven’t even begun yet. When I moved to Salon and then to the Guardian, I heard all sorts of claims about how I’d have to moderate or dilute my work to accommodate those environments and the interests and views of those who own and run them. I don’t think anyone can reasonably claim that happened. And I am quite certain that the same will be true here. The people we work with and, ultimately, the journalism we produce will speak volumes about exactly the reasons we’re doing this and why I’m so excited about it.
On Twitter, David Frum mocked Greenwald for writing at such length, again. Yes, one must admit, Frum only needed to use three words to shame himself as the author of “axis of evil.” And Iraq’s “WMD”: just three letters. Not even a full word.
And now we have Pando’s response to Greenwald, via Mark Ames’s editor. There’s even a Nation angle.
A little later in the day, as the controversy swirled online, there was a heated back and forth on Twitter between Greenwald and James Manley, former top spokesman for Senator Harry Reid who later took an insider P.R. job in DC. Manley tweeted a link to the Mark Ames hit on Greenwald at Pando. Greenwald tweeted referring to Manley’s new post: “‘Revolving door sleaze’, noun: disease plaguing Washington & destroying the nation—see e.g. @JamesPManley http://t.co/QTHKaZQLsz.”
Manley then replied: “and you are a dangerous man. A zealot, full of sanctimonious self righteousness playing a game way out of your league.”
John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer a plan to “free the media.”
We’ve lauded the tireless New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan—tirelessly—but it now seems that there’s another example of how her work has resulted in a truly important shift at the paper (though she won’t say so directly) .
Last June she wrote that the Times produces high-quality reporting on poverty—but far too little of it. Now she observes that there has been a lot more lately, including Wednesday’s haunting portrait on how many kids go hungry in New York (even at Thanksgiving). Much of this, of course, is related to devlish cuts in money for food stamps, post-stimulus.
And she notes, looking ahead:
The Times has other changes in mind. For example, the reporter Rachel Swarns on Monday will begin a weekly column, “The Working Life,” exploring “the experience of working—or not working—in New York,” Mr. Jamieson said. And Michael Powell’s “Gotham” column will change to twice from once a week to help highlight some of the experiences of lower-income New Yorkers.
Prediction: Though awards may be largely trumped-up and meaningless, I think Sullivan will be a Pulitzer finalist if not winner next April.
Activists protesting outside of Walmart on Black Friday were arrested, reports Allison Kilkenny.
Finally, this afternoon, CBS suspended Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan after the network’s internal probe found serious problems in their 60 Minutes Benghazi report.
The report hit Logan for not knowing, or knowing and not caring, about key source Dylan Davies telling a different story to his employer and FBI; for not really substantiating her claims that Al Qaeda led the assault; and for her now-famous October 2012 speech that suggested she was far from objective on this issue.
Her boss, Jeffrey Fager, now says he needs to “make adjustments” at the show. But he did not say how long the pair would be suspended.
This added injury to insult as Logan had just been disinvited to host the Committee to Protect Journalists dinner tonight.
Summary of the findings by CBS’s Al Ortiz, courtesy of The Huffington Post, does not add much that we don’t already know, but perhaps those details exist in the full report. And many questions remain. Ace blogger “Digby” hits the mere “slap on the wrist” and points to other examples of Logan’s reporting-with-an-agenda. UPDATE Wednesday: Nancy Youssef, the McClatchy reporter who probed the Benghazi segment two weeks ago and found several key factual issues, now IDs many shortcomings in new CBS review.
• From the start, Lara Logan and her producing team were looking for a different angle to the story of the Benghazi attack. They believed they found it in the story of Dylan Davies, written under the pseudonym, “Morgan Jones.” It purported to be the first western eyewitness account of the attack. But Logan’s report went to air without “60 Minutes” knowing what Davies had told the F.B.I. and the State Department about his own activities and location on the night of the attack.
• The fact that the F.B.I. and the State Department had information that differed from the account Davies gave to “60 Minutes” was knowable before the piece aired. But the wider reporting resources of CBS News were not employed in an effort to confirm his account. It’s possible that reporters and producers with better access to inside F.B.I. sources could have found out that Davies had given varying and conflicting accounts of his story.
• Members of the “60 Minutes” reporting team conducted interviews with Davies and other individuals in his book, including the doctor who received and treated Ambassador Stevens at the Benghazi hospital. They went to Davies’ employer Blue Mountain, the State Department, the F.B.I. (which had interviewed Davies), and other government agencies to ask about their investigations into the attack. Logan and producer Max McClellan told me they found no reason to doubt Davies’ account and found no holes in his story. But the team did not sufficiently vet Davies’ account of his own actions and whereabouts that night
• Davies told “60 Minutes” that he had lied to his own employer that night about his location, telling Blue Mountain that he was staying at his villa, as his superior ordered him to do, but telling “60 Minutes” that he then defied that order and went to the compound. This crucial point—his admission that he had not told his employer the truth about his own actions—should have been a red flag in the editorial vetting process.
• After the story aired, The Washington Post reported the existence of a so-called “incident report” that had been prepared by Davies for Blue Mountain in which he reportedly said he spent most of the night at his villa, and had not gone to the hospital or the mission compound. Reached by phone, Davies told the “60 Minutes” team that he had not written the incident report, disavowed any knowledge of it, and insisted that the account he gave “60 Minutes” was word for word what he had told the F.B.I. Based on that information and the strong conviction expressed by the team about their story, Jeff Fager defended the story and the reporting to the press.
• On November 7, The New York Times informed Fager that the F.B.I.’s version of Davies’ story differed from what he had told “60 Minutes.” Within hours, CBS News was able to confirm that in the F.B.I.’s account of their interview, Davies was not at the hospital or the mission compound the night of the attack. “60 Minutes” announced that a correction would be made, that the broadcast had been misled, and that it was a mistake to include Davies in the story. Later a State Department source also told CBS News that Davies had stayed at his villa that night and had not witnessed the attack.
• Questions have been raised about the recent pictures from the compound which were displayed at the end of the report, including a picture of Ambassador Stevens’s schedule for the day after the attack. Video taken by the producer-cameraman whom the “60 Minutes” team sent to the Benghazi compound last month clearly shows that the pictures of the Technical Operations Center were authentic, including the picture of the schedule in the debris.
• Questions have also been raised about the role of Al Qaeda in the attack since Logan declared in the report that Al Qaeda fighters had carried it out. Al Qaeda’s role is the subject of much disagreement and debate. While Logan had multiple sources and good reasons to have confidence in them, her assertions that Al Qaeda carried out the attack and controlled the hospital were not adequately attributed in her report.
• In October of 2012, one month before starting work on the Benghazi story, Logan made a speech in which she took a strong public position arguing that the US Government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda, and urging actions that the US should take in response to the Benghazi attack. From a CBS News Standards perspective, there is a conflict in taking a public position on the government’s handling of Benghazi and Al Qaeda, while continuing to report on the story.
• The book, written by Davies and a co-author, was published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, part of the CBS Corporation. “60 Minutes” erred in not disclosing that connection in the segment.
Greg Mitchell points to additional issues with the Benghazi report.
It was a Bill Murray punchline in Tootsie, the title of a play, meant to draw laughs, “Return to Love Canal.” But now The New York Times has literally done it with a video report on what happened more than three decades ago at the most famous US toxic dump disaster ever, with brief updates to recent years.
This literally hits me close to home. I hail from Niagara Falls (site of the middle-class Love Canal neighborhood), wrote one of the first major magazine pieces on the subject in early 1979 and then featured it in my 1981 book on whistleblowers, Truth and Consequences. Dumping of chemicals by huge local factories in the abandoned canal, then covering it up in the 1950s, led to seepage into the basements and backyards of dozens of families, who claimed widespread health defects.
Lois Gibbs, the fiery leader of the homeowners’ group and featured in the video, was one of the stars of that book, along with Hugh Kaufman—who is still around causing trouble (by exposing such tragedies) at the EPA. I covered Hugh not long ago here at this blog because of his work and media appearances around the explosion at the Texas fertilizer plant.