Friday, December 23, 2005

My vote for important reading

I was going to wait until finishing Deliver the Vote to write about it again, but I'm finding so much to recommend that I can't resist. If there's a political buff or civic activist on your gift list, this history of American election fraud is the book you should get them.

In the early chapters, author Tracy Campbell serves up bitter medicine for Democratic readers. It turns out, though, that he thereby inoculates himself for any backlash against what he reveals about today's Republicans. Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 were so much worse than I remembered! If you love your country, if you believe in democracy, you must read this book.

Behind the FEMA meltdown

The highly visible failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in this year's Gulf Coast hurricanes actually began years ago and at the highest levels of the Bush administration, according to the Washington Post today. FEMA fell apart under fire not only because it had been shoved into a corner of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but also because FEMA boss Michael Brown so fiercely -- and unsuccessfully -- fought the reorganization. In response, Bush administration officialdom emasculated Brown's FEMA.

Michael Grunwald and Susan Glasser write:
In many ways, Brown is a cautionary tale of what can happen to Washington officials who make mistakes in the public eye after making enemies behind the scenes. Brown spent two years trying to use his contacts with White House officials to undercut DHS, but the White House rarely backed him, and DHS leaders responded by shifting FEMA's responsibilities and resources to more cooperative agencies.

[Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge stripped FEMA's power over billions of dollars worth of preparedness grants as well as the creation of a national disaster response plan. Most of the agency's top staff quit. And after he arrived at DHS in February, [Ridge’s successor, Michael] Chertoff decided to take away the rest of FEMA's preparedness duties.

The full story is here. The writers took questions from readers this morning. I gather that their work continues tomorrow.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The season is Christmas

Yes, I sent Christmas cards, and I'm now taking a few days off to do the faith and family thing. I wish you great joy in your own circle and, as my neighbors say, saludos y dinero* for the new year. Meanwhile, check this nice piece by Newsweek's Kenneth Woodward.

* health and wealth

Osama, Osama, can you hear me now?

Ooops, the president's little dig at the news media the other day wasn't quite right. It turns out that Osama bin Laden quit using his satellite phone before the word ever got out that someone was listening in. Thanks to the Washington Post for checking it out.

More to the point, there is reason to wonder whether bin Laden is even running al Qaeda anymore. Donald Rumsfeld shared the question while visiting in Pakistan this week. Also wondering is the Indian Express.

How big are blogs?

You, my esteemed reader, are part of the next big thing. Or maybe the thing before the next big thing. Anyway, there appears to be a future in this kind of communication. Read more in The Miami Herald.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ounce of prevention

Let us return to an earlier topic here: the inability of the U.S. medical industry to make enough vaccine for America's needs. This interview in Investor's Business Daily (registration required) offers some reasons why a former capacity no longer exists. Paul Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, has written about the shutdown of U.S. vaccine makers after some bad polio vaccine was shipped by Cutter Laboratories in 1955 and a flood of lawsuits were filed in the 1970s and 1980s over a whooping cough vaccine. Offit says:
We can get vaccines, but [not] from pharmaceutical companies because it's not profitable for them. So let's make a deal. We protect them from unreasonable litigation in exchange for ... more of the products we need.

Now, IDB is no friend of plaintiffs' lawyers. It misses no opportunity to blame lawsuits for economic ills. But I think this physician, Offit, needs to be listened to. You might check out his new book, The Cutter Incident.

One serious critic of Offit on this topic also happens to be a lawyer who defends corporations in product-liability cases. He's Wade Rankin, and also worth reading.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A good word for Wikipedia

Having slammed the user-written reference archive, I guess I'm obligated to share with you this report saying that overall, it's reliable. I'm not convinced, but you may want to see for yourself.

Friday, December 16, 2005

More on the Wikipedia scandal

My hero of the moment is Daniel Brandt, the Texan who tracked down the author of that false biography on Wikipedia that I referred to here several days ago. Here's Daniel Terdiman of CNET News telling how the defamer was found out. Also, some discussion of the fundamental flaws in a reference source open to editing by anyone off the street.

My earlier mention is here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Doing good in changing times

The real estate boom appears to have had a brutal impact on one of my favorite charities, Habitat for Humanity. I don't quite know what to make of this report from Bloomberg, but you need to read it if you believe in decent housing for people of modest means

Monday, December 05, 2005

How "pay for play" news erodes the public conversation

A California journalist on the impact of the U.S.-purchased news stories in the Iraqi press. This is Peter Y. Sussman writing:
When government steps in to do covert journalism, it opens to question the work of all legitimate journalists, and the public is deprived of its lifeline to reliable and essential information on the operation of government.

A free press and a stubbornly independent press are essential to a healthy democracy, both in this country and in Iraq, and the Bush administration's clumsy attempts to peddle propaganda covertly as 'journalism' are a threat to both journalism and democracy in both countries. As journalists, we take pride in our independence from government direction.

At times, however, especially during wars, much of the public tires of dissent and yearns for the country to speak with a single voice. It is especially important at such times that we re-emphasize the importance of our independence so that truth and government oversight are not lost irretrievably because of transitory tidal changes in public opinion. It is our public trust as journalists to preserve diversity of public discourse.

White House on media placements

Robert Buckman reports a White House take on the scandal of U.S. military paying for play in the Iraqi media. Buckman:
I watched Stephen Hadley, Bush's new security adviser, interviewed yesterday by George Stephanopoulos on ABC. He said Bush was "very troubled" about reports that the Pentagon was paying to plant news in Iraqi media (he really didn't know about it?) but evaded Stepanopoulos' repeated question if Bush was going to stop it. [Here's the AP report.]
Jay Jeno's comment: Bush's response was, "Why haven't we been paying newspapers to do that here?"

Buckman is cochairman of the International Journalism Committee in the Society of Professional Journalists, and a member of the Society's Ethics Committee.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why I don't use Wikipedia

Here's the case of an honorable man whose name was blackened for weeks by this build-it-yourself "reference" source. The potential for mischief is so great, the site shouldn't even be considered a place of entertainment. Read about a false Wikipedia 'biography'

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Iraqi scandal "stinks"

The president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Dave Carlson of the University of Florida, checks in on the "pay for play" scandal (see earlier post) in Iraq:
"This stinks. . . . Passing off propaganda as news is a heinous practice, one that all Americans should detest and protest."

There's more response here.

Your host adds that, even if the paid placements were factual, as was asserted in the NYTimes, they were printed under false colors and thereby misled their audience. They corrupted the institution we supposedly are attempting to nourish. And now that this has been found out, the Iraqis have a right to be yet more cynical about whether Americans have any honest intentions in their country.

What angers me most, and most personally, is that these paid placements call into question the integrity of all journalists.

Disruptive change in the news world

Richard Edelman blogs thoughtfully about some of the things shaking up the newspaper world. His direct concern is how public relations people will need to adapt, but the leadup to his argument should concern everyone who is interested in public discourse and a functioning democracy.
"There will be continued cost pressures on the [media] companies, but with attendant questions about the ability to maintain quality of the product. The search for new revenue streams, whether from repurposing (such as podcasting) or pay-for-content, must accelerate."
In what I surmise is a revelation of his working habits, Edelman has named his blog 6 A.M.:.

Army pays Iraqis for favorable news coverage

Every honorable journalist abhors what is described here:
U.S. Army officers have been secretly paying Iraqi journalists to produce upbeat newspaper, radio and television reports about American military operations and the conduct of the war in Iraq.
by the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau.

Some other angles are covered by the New York Times (registration required, but free).

The story was broken a day earlier, in less detail, by the Los Angeles Times.

This disclosure is equally repulsive to Richard Edelman, a key figure in the public relations industry.
If a free media is a central aspect of a democratic society, then we cannot allow our PR industry to impede its development. It is a perversion of our business . . .
What the Army is doing, he writes, is barefaced Pay for play , an allusion to the sordid corruption of radio disc jockeys by the music industry.

Ths Washington Post report is more specific about who has been conducting this media campaign.
The program has been run out of the Multinational Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. John R. Vines in Baghdad, with the help of a Washington-based contractor, Lincoln Group. The company translates the articles and markets them to Iraqi media outlets without indicating the material came from the U.S. military.

The lowdown on the Lincoln Group from the Center for Media and Democracy.