My new Think Again column is called “Real Reporting and Right-Wing Ideology Don’t Mix,” and it’s here.
My Nation column is called “The Rehabilitation of Elliott Abrams,” and it’s here.
Jazz at Lincoln Center presented a real treat last weekend: The Jon Faddis Orchestra, playing the music of Dizzy Gillespie. Jon Faddis probably enjoyed the closest personal connection to Gillespie of any living trumpet player and he picked up not only “Birks’” dedication to his craft but also his penchant for clowning from the stage. I have to say, there was much too much of this the night I saw the band. J. Lo was sitting in the front row and he would not leave her alone. Everyone who came to show late caught hell from the bandleader. None of it was particularly clever and it probably cost the evening at least two numbers. Luckily, when the band did play, they more than made up for it. The first half of the show was made up of new transcriptions from Gillespie's 1940s big band. The second half was devoted to pieces from Gillespie's days as a jazz ambassador in the 1950s. Faddis ran one of the tightest jazz bands of all time when Carnegie Hall was footing the bill and the orchestra he has put together is pretty stellar today. The big thrill of the show—both musically and emotionally—were the songs played by the great Jimmy Heath who just killed on some of the same solos he did over half a century ago alongside John Coltrane. Kinda brought tears to these eyes… More from my friends as Jazz@LC here.
On the old fart music scene, there’s a forty-year anniversary re-release on 180-gram vinyl only of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which long ago introduced teenagers and others to the music of Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin. Lotta talking, but if you don’t have it, you gotta. Nice packaging, too.
And my friends at Sony Legacy have put out Elvis's Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite. It’s two CDs from two 1973 shows plus a dress Rehearsal plus five bonus tracks and a twenty-four-page booklet with rare photos and new liner notes. Again, lotta talking but Elvis fanatics want every second they can get, especially 1973 Elvis fanatics.
For Deadheads, there’s Dave’s Picks, Volume 5, also from 1973 at UCLA. Apparently, it’s already sold out though, so I’m sorry. Read all about how excellent it would be if you could have gotten your hands on one, here. (Big bonus: Bill Walton wrote the liner notes…)
I have also been spending some time with of those British sleuthing shows on DVD and Blu-ray, most recently, "Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries," which stars Essie Davis as a modern woman of the late 1920s operating in a mostly male-dominated detective world. Then there is Stephen Mangan in "Dirk Gently" as a holistic detective, which is pretty goofy. There is also a new season of "Murdoch Mysteries," but to be honest, none compare with the gold standard: "Foyle’s War," which luckily for everyone who hasn’t see it, is now out on "The Home Front Files, Sets 1-6" in preparation for its return in September 2013.
This week’s list:
Philip Roth novels, in order of greatness:
1) The Counterlife
2) Goodbye Columbus
3) Operation Shylock
4) The Ghost Writer (Zuckerman Bound)
5) Letting Go
Philip Roth novels, in order of overratedness:
1) The Plot Against America
Philip Roth novels I sometimes think are a bit overrated but I would not wish to argue the point because they are, in most respects, great:
The Human Stain
First, a quick hat-tip to Cara Forgarty, over at the Organization of News Ombudsmen. She has been kind enough to highlight my blog post about the perilous state of America’s ombudsmen on her organization’s home page. If you’re media-obsessed geek (and who isn’t?) you should check it/them out at newsombudsmen.org.
Secrecy, the Dark Side of Democracy … and Journalism
by Reed Richardson
In the spring of 1960, just barely a year after Fidel Castro had seized power, a Princeton researcher named Lloyd Free conducted a comprehensive public opinion survey inside Cuba. After talking with thousands of Cubans, Free found an overwhelming majority of the public had made common cause with their new leader and his plans for the future and, what’s more, greatly feared a return of the previous, American-backed dictator. Under these conditions, any attempts at fomenting an insurrection would likely result in miserable failure, and the report concluded as much when it was published and circulated in Washington, DC, in July of that year. And that’s exactly what happened almost a year later, we now know, when the CIA disastrously proved Free right.
The woeful anecdote above is paraphrased from Senator Patrick Moynihan’s invaluable little book about our government’s long history of mismanaging information, Secrecy. Though it was published in 1998 and is now a generation old, it’s nonetheless striking how timely the insights from the book remain and scary how prescient its warnings still sound. This is particularly true as we approach the point ten years ago when the US invaded Iraq, a war whose casus belli had likewise already been thoroughly undermined by in-country investigation as well as contemporaneous reporting before the first round was ever fired.
That the conventional wisdom in Washington dismissed all this extensive evidence in favor of some ambiguous spy satellite photos and the chimerical rumors of a few, dishonest grifters is telling. It speaks to a dangerous inversion of how both the government and the media has come to assess and value information—one that now increasingly correlates importance and exclusivity. Playing upon this very same predilection in the media, the Bush White House deftly maneuvered the country into war by spoon-feeding the Washington press corps an unending series of irresistible scoops. If anybody can pull a quote from Hans Blix’s UN report, what it says can’t be that important in other words, whereas an exclusive from Ahmad Chalabi is bound to be far more revealing and thus drive the news cycle.
But the grim anniversary approaching on the calendar isn’t what prompted me to pull Moynihan’s book down off the shelf a few days ago. It was the occasion of this being “Sunshine Week,” an admittedly PR-driven, yet worthwhile effort by a number of open government watchdog sites to get together and discuss just how far down the rabbit hole our nation’s information has descended, and how the public and the press can try get it all out. It culminates with Friday’s National Freedom of Information Day conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
There’s no doubt that one week of emphasis on this issue is not enough. Secrecy is now endemic to our government like never before. Indeed, the vastness of its reach produces through-the-looking-glass moments of Orwellian absurdity. For example, Moynihan noted in his book that when the CIA finally declassified its role in staging a 1954 coup in Guatemala, the agency’s 1994 report still chose to redact some elements, including a passage quoting directly from President Dwight Eisenhower’s public memoirs. Then there’s the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of which were famously leaked to the New York Times in 1971, but which wasn’t officially and fully declassified (including another 2,384 pages) until forty years later. And late last year, when the independent watchdog group National Security Archive tried to follow-up on the progress of implementing new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations, it had to—what else?—submit a FOIA request.
The scope of the secrecy problem confronting us now is staggering, as is the cost to manage it all, which the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) estimated at $11.36 billion in fiscal year 2011. During that same year, the US government took 92,064,862 derivative classification actions, meaning they found some data point in some document, blog post, email, or IM worth making secret. Over the course of a year, that’s the equivalent to classifying something a secret three times every second. Moreover, that total number of annual classifications represents an 11-fold increase over the 8,390,057 made in the fiscal year that ended just a few weeks after 9/11/2001. This runaway train of secrecy is misleading, however, as the ISOO’s 2011 annual report subtly acknowledges that until the Obama administration instituted new rules, few governmental agencies even knew how to track their classification activity, making the reported numbers deceptively low. This, of course, meant that nobody really knew how many secrets the US government was keeping, making it perhaps the best-kept secret of all.
Since 2009, the current administration has made some notable strides in easing our secrecy overload. Responses to FOIA requests and annual declassifications are both on the rise—although the latter is still barely half the rate of classifications—and the backlog of pending declassifications and FOIA requests has declined. But Obama’s oft-touted claim of “most transparent” administration ever is far from living up to the hype. Two recent analyses—from the Center for Effective Government and the Associated Press—find that the federal government is now releasing fewer full versions of information requested and increasingly citing several exemptions, most notably national security, as justification for not complying with requests. As the AP explains:
In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama's first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
Whether this turning off of the spigot is having a direct effect on the media is hard to say, but it is notable that news organizations are pursuing fewer legal challenges to government secrecy during the Obama administration than during Bush’s second term. (Certainly, the overall decline in newsroom staff size during these years could be playing a major role in the downward trend.) Of note, the “liberal” New York Times has filed nine FOIA lawsuits since Obama took office, while it only pursued three during 2005–09. Fox News, on the other hand, has filed five since 2009 after having sought none during Bush’s second term. But it’s important to point out that the media is involved in only a tiny fraction—between one and two percent, typically—of FOIA lawsuits.
This increasing tension between creating more secrets while trying to shield more of them behind the mantle of things like national security and “deliberative process” has had a perverse effect. By boosting supply and tightening demand, it creates a ready-made market for third-party organizations like Wikileaks to step into and exploit, especially if the press is perceived as having pulled back somewhat from its traditional role of pursuing and publishing secrets. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Private Bradley Manning ended up there after he couldn’t gain any traction with his attempts to leak hundreds of thousands of war documents and secret cables to the Times or Washington Post. And exacerbating all this is the Obama administration’s dreadful record of aggressively prosecuting both whistleblowers and leakers, like Manning, at a never before seen rate.
The Times’ recent track record is illustrative of the dilemma confronting both the press and our democracy. On the one hand, preventing some information from being publicly disseminated may be critical to protecting US personnel and interests in places of danger. But one has to question the real motives behind these requests when, many times, the secret either gets out through other means or the government simply seems to stop caring about them.
This was the case with the Times’s revelation of a heretofore secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, an article which the paper’s public editor discussed last month. Notably, the paper had withheld the base’s location for many months per CIA request, but when a Times reporter finally notified the agency the paper was unilaterally ending its news embargo the CIA didn’t respond. So, one might reasonably ask, what then was really gained by the delay, for either national security or the public’s right to know?
Fed by the default behavior common among almost any bureaucracy, keeping secrets can soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a means unto itself. And despite its role as our democracy’s chief source of sunshine, the press—with its long history of liberally granting anonymity and hiding its editorial decisionmaking—has some of this same dark, secretive DNA built into its profession as well. But in a world where there exists too many secrets to even count anymore, the press would be sell served to move away from the business of protecting any of them, whether it’s their own or somebody else’s. And while chasing scoops and exclusives helps in that, that too is a strategy of diminishing, sometimes dangerously wrong, returns.
“Analysis, far more than secrecy, is the key to security,” wrote Moynihan 15 years ago, in what might be interpreted as good advice not just for the healthy future of our democracy but for our press corps as well. “Secrecy is for losers,” he noted in his book’s conclusion. “For people who don’t know how important information really is.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Journalists should hold themselves to a higher standard, and so should their ombudsmen, Reed Richardson writes.