New York Times plays up Ferguson’s Good Cop

(Analyzing the NYT’s framing could be a fulltime job.)

Lt. Jerry Lohr | Photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

On Thursday, the New York Times published “In Ferguson, Officer Defused Eruptions as Crowds Grew Tense,” a profile of St. Louis County Police’s Good Cop, Lt. Jerry Lohr. Lohr, with the Times‘ help, is here to counter what you’ve been hearing for months about the Ferguson cops and their abuse of the black community rising up in anger over the death of Michael Brown. Naturally, the Times opens its story with descriptions of the violence protesters have been perpetrating, burying accounts of tear gas and omitting rubber bullets altogether. But to the main point, the Times writes:

Before, during and after that first night of violence, few law enforcement officials have done more on the ground to ease the volatility of protesters than Lieutenant Lohr, who is white. And few of his white colleagues have been able to connect with the largely black crowds better than he has.

To give him credibility, they write:

“We were having a conversation one day out here, and he seemed like a pretty decent guy, so I grew to like him,” said [protester] Mr. Williams, who is black and lives in Ferguson.

Lohr, who “never wears riot gear,” appeals to white liberals (Times readers) because he seems to represent the idea that a simple dialogue is all that’s needed to bridge racial and power disparities.

He also helps them forget about the army of cops, in Ferguson and in every city in America, and increasingly in every small town, who nearly always wear riot gear to quell protests, no matter how peaceful.

The main effect of the Times piece, intentional or not, is to advance the cops’ strategy, which is to deploy a Good Cop who distracts from the Bad Cops, makes you think the especially bad ones are just “bad apples” running rogue, and implies that simple reforms or mere rooting out of the excessive few is all that’s needed.

The good cop/bad cop routine is typically used in interrogations, but it’s easy to see how the principle can be applied more broadly.

Slate asked retired police officers and experts to confirm that the practice is used, and they explain it:

Joseph Pollini, a retired lieutenant commander, told us that it’s definitely used on occasion. The typical set-up, he said, will have the intimidating “bad” cop first, followed by the more personable “good” cop, who assures the suspect that everything will be “fine.” Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that it’s used “all the time,” mainly by detectives. “When a person is confronted by two individuals, one friendly and one hostile, he or she will ultimately create a much better relationship or zone of comfort with the friendly one,” Haberfeld explains. “Especially if the hostile one is truly threatening.”

In Ferguson, after media messaging got out of hand, with police portrayed as unruly and too aggressive, the police sent in the good cop, to calm the crowds and send the message via the media that not all cops are riot-geared warriors and that dialogue is feasible.

This isn’t the first time that Ferguson police have tried this, and it isn’t the first time the media have helped. In August, we suddenly began hearing stories about Ferguson’s Captain Ronald Johnson, who the Times wrote “immediately signaled a change in approach. Captain Johnson told reporters he had ordered troopers to remove their tear-gas masks, and in the early evening he accompanied several groups of protesters through the streets, clasping hands, listening to stories and marching alongside them.” He might as well be one of them.

A week later Johnson got his own laudatory Times profile, in which he says, “I’ve just tried to stand on that line of what’s right.” This too, obscures the basic power imbalance the police will always wield. Cops are getting more and more weapons from the Department of Homeland Security while decrying the protestors’ “violence.” According to the Bureau of Justice, “U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010…Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.” Meanwhile, “In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.”

As Malcom Harris wrote at the time:

After making headlines for mediating, Capt. Johnson observed a “turning point” in the police response to protesters. That could be read another way, as a call for turning point, as a request for passivity — in the several months since, Johnson has faded from media headlines, but the protests continue, as Governor Nixon announced a state of emergency before a non-indictment, the St. Louis County exonerated the now-retired-and-married Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, and police continue to violently repress.

By portraying a single cop’s narrative, the Times distracts from the rest of what Ferguson’s protesters are dealing with. But especially by playing up a “good cop,” the Times is playing right into police strategy, as those in riot gear lie in wait.

Blog Postmortem: learning from the billionaire journalism model

At least Matt Taibbi is writing again. He’s back with Rolling Stone, where he published ‘The $9 Billion Witness,’ an excellent account of Alayne Fleishman, the whistleblower JPMorgan Chase and the DOJ tried to silence:

This past year she watched as Holder’s Justice Department struck a series of historic settlement deals with Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America. The root bargain in these deals was cash for secrecy. The banks paid big fines, without trials or even judges – only secret negotiations that typically ended with the public shown nothing but vague, quasi-official papers called “statements of facts,” which were conveniently devoid of anything like actual facts.

And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. “I could be sued into bankruptcy,” she says. “I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.”

Good stuff. It’s Taibbi’s first publicly available journalism since February. But it’s in Rolling Stone because Taibbi parted ways with First Look after ruffling president Pierre Omidyar’s feathers, before publishing a single word for the Racket, the magazine he was supposed to launch under the First Look Media umbrella this fall. Today, Omidyar announced that he’s scrapping the project altogether, and firing everyone Taibbi had culled for the magazine. Beyond being the billionaire behind eBay and former Paypal board member, which in my view makes him megalomaniacal on its own, Omidyar also micromanages comically:

The lack of autonomous budgets, for instance, meant that in many cases Omidyar was personally signing off on—and occasionally objecting to—employee expense reports for taxi rides and office supplies. Both Cook, The Intercept‘s editor-in-chief, and Taibbi chafed at what they regarded as onerous intrusions into their hiring authority.

Taibbi and First Look disagreed over the functionality of the website, the timing of its launch, which designers and programmers they would use,  Racket‘s organizational chart—even, at one point, over office seating assignments.

Hopefully someone will leak Omidyar’s disputed seating chart while he’s busy reviewing Staples receipts. Not hard to see why Intercept editor John Cook is jumping ship too.

Tarzie, blogger-turned-heretic for “lefties in the back row” who has been calling all of this from day one (meaning while everyone else was dismissing criticism of billionaire journalism with “it’s too early to judge”), has picked out the highlights (lowlights) from the New York mag Omidyar profile. (My favorite: “Omidyar’s organization operates a little like WikiLeaks, except it is staffed by well-salaried journalists and backed by Silicon Valley money.”)

As Chris Floyd says, “You lie down with dogs, Matt, you get up with fleas. What the hell else did you think would happen?” What did Taibbi think would happen, working for the guy who sat on the board of PayPal as it froze the account of WikiLeaks, an act of clear censorship and government-corporate collusion, that no respectable journalist, or lefty, and certainly no lefty journalist, should condone by association. Those who point to Omidyar’s extremely belated request for “leniency” for the PayPal 14 should call on the 123rd richest man in the world to pay the activists’ measly $80,000 restitution (that total was before last month’s sentencing, so it’s now even lower). They should also note that Omidyar’s handwringing upholds the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act’s logic, which gives corporations a dangerous, disproportionate weapon to use against activists, whom Omidyar says are the ones who wield “excessive impact” online.

Umfuld is a Tumblr blogger covering the Intercept and PandoDaily, a news site founded by Sarah Lacy that covers Silicon Valley. He contrasts Taibbi’s split with Pando’s firing of David Sirota, a liberal journalist from whom the Intercept quotes heavily in its latest piece on Wall Street:

To compare Carr laying off David Sirota with Omidyar firing Matt Taibbi there are some important differences:
– Omidyar never let Taibbi publish a word even though he clearly paid good money for the story critical of predatory lending to be produced.
– Carr laid off Sirota after publishing / editing several of his pension articles, one of which has brought threats of a huge lawsuit from Chris Christie, or something.
– Carr laid off Sirota during a substantial decline in readership.
– Omidyar fired Taibbi despite his clearly being the best chance for The Racket to have a major impact when launched.
– Sirota is / was under no non-disclosure agreement with Pando.
– Taibbi is clearly forbidden to discuss his firing by Omidyar.

You get the idea. Hopefully.

Pando also saw some problems coming, noting differences in Omidyar’s and Taibbi’s outlooks for the magazine this summer. In February 2014, according to the New York Times, Taibbi intended to “start his own publication focusing on financial and political corruption.” Just a few months later, Omidyar published a blog post on First Look’s progress, looking forward to working with “the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.” One wonders if Taibbi got bold enough to suggest Omidyar — whose own philanthropy is incredibly shady — should be up for coverage. Who knows? As Umfuld notes and as many suspect, it appears Taibbi is under a non-disclosure agreement, and so we may never get more than the Intercept’s official account, which paints Omidyar as a controller and the writers as iconoclasts just trying to get things done.

We should largely ignore this narrative of personalities, because — besides the fact that it’s an official account and Taibbi isn’t given a voice — it obscures the structural lessons journalists and media critics should be learning.

What has happened under Omidyar’s reign? Tarzie, on top of this more than anyone, has the latest on Greenwald’s slow-motion leaking of Snowden’s documents (I’m more interested in them than he is — interested, for instance, that we have more confirmation that the Country X the Intercept redacted is in fact Afghanistan, though the original country and not the corroboration came from the cache), which has shifted from him not being allowed to give anyone else documents to now vetting even freelance journalists to view the full set and don’t you ask why.

Only recently, I’ve been covering some of the Intercept’s other writers and their framing, as have others before me, like Arthur Silber, Kevin Dooley, Patrick Higgins, Chris Floyd, and others.

On the larger lessons: one thing to note is that money doesn’t buy journalism. Omidyar hired many of the left’s favorite, and some of the US’s most popular, journalists, and paid many of them to simply not write. For months, Matt Taibbi, Liliana Segura, and the rest of the First Look staff were publishing at much lower rates than before, if at all. Of course, preparation takes time, but Taibbi’s first piece was already written by the time he was canned, and it’s unclear what was keeping the Intercept’s production down.

But money does buy influence, social circles, and conformity. Holding out a $250 million enterprise, with most lefty journalists in America freelancing to pay rent, Omidyar and his top hires felt comfortable that anyone who might want a job would refrain from criticizing this obviously dubious deal. Timothy Shorrock said the NYMag Omidyar profile should’ve been called “left-wing journalists close their eyes to money & hypocrisy.” Protesting that it’s still too early to make that call, Arun Gupta said what he seems to think is a defense: “I know for fact many scores of well-known left journos tried to get a job there.” Only when the Intercept appeared finished with a round of hires did some ease up enough to point out some flaws, but too few of those were structural.

As Tarzie said – again, from day one:

No doubt Greenwald is shrewdly negotiating for full editorial autonomy from Mr. .00001%, so, as Arthur Silber remarked: ‘look for all the stories about the corrupt, vicious ruling class by January at the latest.’

For Greenwald or his colleagues to claim “editorial autonomy” is to deflect the criticism. Sure, Omidyar isn’t over their shoulder (though he does write “more on [their] internal messaging than anyone else”), but as Greenwald himself put it in 2007:

I think it’s relevant who owns any journalistic outlet. The reason for that is obvious. The reason is people who work for companies know who signs their paychecks and know the work they do ought to be pleasing to the people who sign their paychecks.

Furthermore, will Omidyar – himself a very active political, philanthropic, and economic player, having funded members of India’s Modi government and Ukraine’s parliament – be subject to the Intercept’s fearless, adversarial journalism? Nope.

Which way forward for the Intercept? One of their newest hires, Sharon Weinberger, will serve as national security editor. A former defense analyst for SPC, a research, electronics and computer software company working for the US DoD, Weinberger could be seen partnering with ex-DoD & Booz Allen VP Dov Zakheim, giving weaponry advice to the US military, and fear-mongering about Iran’s nuclear weapons as recently as 2009 in the New York Post:

It underscored the US’s greatest fears — a nuclear Iran isn’t just about the Middle East, it’s about all the countries that Iran could supply with arms and technology.

What’s so fearless and adversarial about that? At this rate, the Racket‘s folding is good news. Taibbi is better off without Omidyar, as are the rest of us.

Back to Tarzie, back to the bigger picture:

The hoarding of wealth, like the hoarding of state secrets, is really not such a bad thing when it can be parlayed into more wealth and slightly better journalism, and if you think otherwise you must be jealous.

That’s the implication we’ll take away, unless we remove our money blinders.

It’s not like we don’t have valuable cultural critics and systems of analysis at the ready — it’s more a matter of whether and where to apply them. As Tarzie wrote to Noam Chomsky about the Propaganda Model, which he and Edward Herman set forth in Manufacturing Consent:

It is my sincere belief that The Propaganda Model applies all the way out to the margins of American discourse, and that it is as useful for analyzing a Democracy Now broadcast or an issue of Jacobin as it is to understanding the Fox News Network.

As he notes, five filters operate on news media:

  1. Ownership of the medium
  2. Medium’s funding sources
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Fear ideology

Tarzie analyzes how these filters operate on a Democracy Now! broadcast, and then discusses Chomsky’s representation of Aaron Swartz’s case.

It seems eminently reasonable to apply the Propaganda Model to every news outlet, particularly one run by a micromanaging billionaire who’s investing in right-wing governments in India and the Ukraine and who oversaw and could’ve done more to stop an unprecedented act of corporate censorship on behalf of the state against WikiLeaks at its time of perhaps greatest need. The lesson to be learned from First Look is that Omidyar’s move was, consciously or not, one to curtail the margins of acceptable discourse, and that applying the Propaganda Model with scrutiny is an attempt to expand those margins, or at least to understand where they are, and how they work, and for whom.

Chomsky’s flaw is that he assumes the Model only applies to corporate media, that independent and nonprofit media are above reproach. There is no clean money, which is less a blanket condemnation than a categorical understanding of the compromises and competing interests involved in the news media industry. I’ll preempt accusations of purity with the free admission that no media organization is perfect. Yes, many news outlets are owned by billionaires. But when one of them brands itself as iconoclastic and editorially autonomous, we should take a closer look to see whether that’s true, or even possible. The far left rightly laughs at MSNBC for essentially playing the Democrats’ counterpart to Fox News, justifying President Obama’s every move, turning into an anti-Republican machine come election time, and mocking the idea of anything outside the two-party system. Those paying closer attention notice that MSNBC would never take its owner, Comcast, to journalistic task. Hardly hard-hitting news. But the same left hesitates to criticize what it sees as one of their own.

There is a growing consensus, at least on the left, that objective journalism is a myth. Every news outlet is subjective, at the very least by the stories they choose to cover and those they ignore. Speaking generally, it’s time we took this a step further and understand that total autonomy can only exist in a vacuum. It’s far more valuable to investigate the conflicts, money, and interests that will always be at play, and keep asking questions to ensure as much independence as possible.

Obama expands — not just extends — US war on Afghanistan

It’s worth noting that Obama’s “decision” authorizing US troops’ role in Afghanistan in 2015 is not merely an extension of war he promised to end this year; it’s also an expansion, as US forces are now given new powers, allowed to kill new targets and use new weapons:

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

As Marcy Wheeler writes,

Virtually simultaneously with the decision to permit American forces to be more involved with the Afghan government, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has reversed Hamid Karzai’s ban on night raids — and also renamed them “night operations.”

The Times has more on that here:

Nazifullah Salarzai, Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, said that the American and NATO missions in 2015 would be governed by the security agreements the Afghan government has signed with the United States and with NATO.

Neither agreement precludes the possibility of joint night raids.

Some Afghans are worried about resumption of the raids.

The Taliban will be going into other people’s houses, and the Americans will be behind them again, and there will be losses again of women and children when Taliban shoot from people’s houses, and in reaction the foreigners will bomb or kill them,” said Haji Abdullah Jan, a local shura leader in the Maiwand District of Kandahar Province. “I am not in favor of night raids because we have experienced such huge losses from them during those past years.

Nevertheless, headlines have largely said that Obama merely “extended” the US’s role, implicitly focusing on the limited, less surprising, less interesting aspect of Obama’s hypocrisy. Continue reading “Obama expands — not just extends — US war on Afghanistan”

The disappearing classified order

Friday night, the New York Times published a major story online under the then-all-caps headline, “IN SECRET, OBAMA EXTENDS U.S. ROLE IN AFGHAN COMBAT.” Upon publication, at 9:33pm EST, Mark Mazzetti’s and Eric Schmitt’s article began,

President Obama signed a secret order in recent weeks authorizing a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

It’s especially relevant that the order was signed in secret, because the decision directly contradicts Obama’s 2012 campaign rhetoric about withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 — in fact, Obama specifically made it a campaign issue that he promised to withdraw troops by this year’s end, whereas Mitt Romney had no timetable.

On Twitter, journalist Gregory Johnson noted another, implicit reason for the story’s importance: “Unmentioned, but I assume this also allows Guantanamo to stay open another year,” with Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith explaining, “It precludes Taliban detainees from arguing ‘end of hostilities’ as a basis for release for another year.”

The next morning, however, I noticed the print edition carried the much different headline, “IN A SHIFT, OBAMA EXTENDS U.S. ROLE IN AFGHAN COMBAT.” Continue reading “The disappearing classified order”

New York Times blames Iran for US sanctions

Maintaining the continued threat of Iran’s nuclear program is consistently useful to the US government’s foreign policy rhetoric. For decades it has been used to justify sending billions of dollars every year to Israel for “self-defense” and to maintain the US’s own billion-dollar nuclear stockpile. It has been used to justify US sanctions on Iran, Israel’s assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists (implicitly), and various strategic proxy wars.

The New York Timestimeline, just ahead of upcoming finalizing talks with Iran, covering “whether Iran is racing toward nuclear weapon capabilities” is therefore quite useful in upholding this theme. The Times says Iran’s potential nuclear weapons program is “one of the most contentious issues challenging the West, including the United States and Israel, which has been involved in a shadow war with the country,” using the singular “has” and thus shielding the United States from that clause, despite the US’s decades of “crippling” sanctions, to use its own term. Sanctions both deprive ordinary citizens of food and medicine and serve as a trapping prelude to war: the logic goes that if sanctions don’t work, meaning if you don’t bend to our will, we’ll have to take it up a notch. Continue reading “New York Times blames Iran for US sanctions”

Brief Questioning of Hideous Men

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel on Reforms to the Nuclear Enterprise in the Pentagon Briefing Room


Q: “Where’s the accountability for the failure to I guess improve and take the steps that were needed over this time? How many billions of dollars?”
Q: “How did the air crews manage with just one wrench?”
Q: “Everybody’s asking: What happened to your cheek?”
Q: (inaudible) — “Cabinet meeting.” (Laughter.)
Q: “Over the years, we’ve heard very similar words from your predecessors. How do you convey to the American public that this time will be different?”