Wednesday, August 26, 2009

An ongoing issue is US codification of and complicity in torture, and efforts to make a reckoning for it that has finally started arriving in fits and starts. A long-awaited report came to light (Aug. 24, by the CIA’s Inspector General). In a remarkable turn, the Attorney General of the United States decided to investigate CIA brutality in connection with the voluminous documentation of “abuse” of detainees captured in some fashion during the last eight years or so. Critics may argue that targeting low- to mid-level operatives in a clandestine agency carries less political weight, less risky, than prosecuting people who decided policy at the Office of Legal Counsel, which is under the AG’s purview.

Several things capture my interest so it is hard to narrow it down and stay focused on one thing at a time. Indeed, these days a lot of things appear interconnected and, upon closer inspection, actually are, even if those webs of connections end up tenuous.

Questions: who is going to be investigated? Will there be prosecutions? How much will actually come to light, given the use of “state secrets” protections? Given what we already know, what will more information actually uncover? Will it become political ammunition or lead to better transparency and an end to the abuses (crimes, in layman’s terminology)?

Why has it taken so long for the C.I.A. to be prosecuted for its crimes? I think the usage of “crime” is acceptable if we define criminal acts are those that are unlawful. The biggest question then becomes, Does international law have any force? do our own laws? The NYT reports, “The Justice Department’s ethics office has recommended reversing the Bush administration and reopening nearly a dozen prisoner-abuse cases, potentially exposing Central Intelligence Agency employees and contractors to prosecution for brutal treatment of terrorism suspects, according to a person officially briefed on the matter.” (my italics)

We can, for now, safely assume that a democratic country needs a clandestine service to do its dirty work, the kind that does not necessitate public deliberation — or awareness. But for some reason, national security is such a potent drug that even normally staid concepts like the rule of law (not rule of reckless arrogant men) gets distorted into a bizarre shape. Our representatives refuse to place the detainees at Gitmo into their home districts, never mind the multitudes of US prisoners already jailed in them. The subtext is that Americans are not capable of Qaeda-like brutality. Refuting that assumption ought to be unnecessary.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It has been a few weeks since anything has captured my interest to the point at which I wanted to delve into it, uncover what can be laid bare, and report. At the moment, in this trendy Brooklyn neighborhood, a lot of things are happening. But this was never a personal journal; instead I wanted to give context for the discoveries that do merit note.

Michael Massing, in the latest New York Review of Books, observes that digital media need not spell doom for the traditional norms (sometimes ignored) of integrity and accountability and the commitment, stated but less often practiced, to “fact-checking.” Instead, he writes, we are at a fateful crossroads, a hinge point. Massing approvingly cites the work of Clay Shirky, who observed much along the same lines. The latest Columbia Journalism Review is also full of seasoned observers who seem to cohere along a practical solution: charge for access. Before that can be explored, first it is necessary to bemoan the fact that print and Web journos feel respectively like dinosaurs and the small mammalian critters that herald the evolutionary future, for good or bad.

One paradox that is not-so-often pundited captures the issue of journalism “as content,” as a “monetizable” product that is one part original reporting, which involves depth, expertise and field work, and another part soulless aggregation of the reportage. It is paradoxical for the same reason it is so ubiquitous: all of the time the dispatches of real observers are linked, disseminated and repackaged; all of the time the predominant majority of consumers heavily depend on being fed constantly-updated information, which can entirely bypass the very working people without whom the news cannot arrive in the very medium that is “corroding” the old models.

There is a lot of buzz around the topic of erecting pay walls, for example, which contains positives and negatives. On the plus, it generates more revenue for the providers than can be supplied by ads. On the other hand, millions of people expect information to be free. A key assumption is that quality journalism is integral to democracy. Yet that very democratic impulse represented by the internet is challenging the institutions that are supposed to foster informed decision-making. What the current climate may lead us to is highly specialized super-niche markets in which microaudiences pay for content suited to them. To survive the major media entities will have to go much more local, just to differentiate themselves. The idea of a mass media may soon disappear in the process.