Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Campaign against Internet censorship

As much as I complain about the attacks on free speech going on in this country, Americans still have far more rights than most of the rest of the world's citizens. Amnesty International has started a new website/campaign designed to publicize the ways in which governments are censoring and filtering the web and even jailing their citizens for web publications.

Here's the pledge Amnesty is asking people to sign regarding Internet freedom:

"I believe the internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the internet and on companies to stop helping them do it."

Link to BBC story about Amnesty's Irrepressible.info campaign

As I've mentioned before, Amnesty is far from the only group to focus attention on worldwide censorship and repression. Sadly, one of the best -- the Committee to Protect Bloggers -- ceased operations just two weeks ago due to a lack of funding. Here's a sad but true quote from the founder's explanation of why he shut down the blog:
"I am, however, more worried than ever that free speech is less and less a priority for the overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Congress wakes up; the NY Times notices

The New York Times' editorial on May 26 begins this way:

"Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives have achieved an almost unprecedented level of bipartisanship in denouncing the F.B.I.'s search of a congressman's office. They talk angrily about the separation of powers and the implications of having an executive branch agency make a foray into a lawmaker's official space. Our first question is where all these concerned constitutionalists have been for the last five years."

I've been wondering the same thing for a while (of course I'm far from the only one.)

It's nice to see the MSM focusing on this problem too.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Court rules bloggers are covered by reporter's shield law

Wired reports that a California appeals court has ruled that bloggers who published information about upcoming Apple products are protected by California's reporter's shield law.

"We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes 'legitimate journalis(m).' The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here," the court wrote.

It's nice to have some good news to report for a change.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Congressional culture of hypocrisy

From the Roanoke Times:

"When they found out the Bush administration was listening in on some Americans' international phone calls without bothering to obtain a warrant, most Republicans in Congress yawned.... But the FBI gets a lawful warrant to search the office of a representative allegedly caught on videotape accepting a $100,000 bribe and suddenly, GOP leaders in Congress sputter that the Bush administration is overreaching."

Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), is outraged that the FBI violated the sanctity of his office. But if I follow Congress' logic on the NSA's collection of phone numbers, why is he afraid if he has nothing to hide?

And after all the squabbling, invective, wasted time and money, Congress is managed to act together on this issue. They are demanding the return of Jefferson's papers from the FBI. How about you all demand the return of Americans' privacy first, and then we can talk about returning legally obtained papers?

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had the gall to say that the papers had been 'unconstitutionally seized.' Oh, you remember what the Constitution is, do you?

ACLU begins national campaign against NSA spying

The American Civil Liberties Union launched a national campaign urging citizens to contact the FCC and state and local representatives to demand an investigation of phone companies' collusion with the NSA.

Of course, the FCC preemptively declined to investigate the NSA's gross invasion of American's privacy, citing the impossibility of obtaining the classified information necessary, just as the Justice Department did earlier.

At least one FCC commissioner, Michael Copps, disagrees with the commission's decision. "We need to be certain that the companies over which the FCC has public interest oversight have not gone – or been asked to go – to a place where they should not be," he said in a statement.

Lest you think my outrage over the NSA's actions is partisan, I just went to the Democratic National Committee's home page to see what they have to say about the situation. On the home page, at least, the answer is NOTHING. They have features about the CIA leak scandal, energy prices, a meeting between DNC chairman Howard Dean and Democratic mayors, and comments from Dean on a host of other issues, including the Federal Marriage Amendment, the death of Lloyd Bentsen, and the 'Harmful Republican Voter ID Law in Missouri.' They even have a link to the video of Dean's appearance on the Daily Show.

A search of the DNC website using the term 'NSA' turned up a handful of pages, most focusing on the fact that Bush 'misled the American public.' Here's what I have to say to Dean and the Democrats -- what the hell is wrong with you people?

Studs Terkel rules

I have been a huge fan of Studs Terkel since I read Working while studying sociology at Indiana University as an undergrad. I attended his speech at NYU while I was working on my master's degree. I am not one for autographs (I may own three or four autographed books out of 2,000+) but I wanted to get my copy of My American Century autographed by him. Unfortunately, he had to leave early because his wife fell ill.

But after today's news, my feelings for the nonagenarian have gone beyond respect. I want to hug him. Terkel has filed suit against AT&T to prevent the company from given his phone records to the NSA without a court order.

Here's what he had to say about the suit:

"Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far."

Hear, hear.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Attorney General claims the right to violate the First Amendment

Here's the lede from CNN's story on Attorney General Albert Gonzalez's 'comments':

"Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Sunday he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information, citing an obligation to national security."

It just gets worse from there.
"He added that the First Amendment right of a free press should not be absolute when it comes to national security."

I'm not a lawyer, but I think Gonzalez should take a look at this article on the State Department's website, written by James Goodale, the attorney who defended the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case (which also involved classified information).
"The protection of the First Amendment extends beyond press reports concerning major government policies and well-known public figures. The Supreme Court has held that if the press "lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then [the government] may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order," Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U.S. 97 (1979)."

And here's the conclusion to Mr. Goodale's article:
"As the cases discussed above illustrate, over the course of the 20th century the Supreme Court has breathed life into the text of the First Amendment by upholding the right of the press to pursue its mission, no matter how odious that mission might seem to those in power. The courts have imposed some limits on this liberty, and questions remain as to how far this liberty will extend to new media, and to some of the more aggressive efforts employed by journalists to obtain the news. Still, I am confident that the Supreme Court will continue to recognize that, as Justice Stewart wrote in the Pentagon Papers case, "without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people."

What is it going to take to stop this administration from destroying the Constitution of the United States?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Report: Iran to force Jews to wear yellow badges?!? (updated)

UPDATE: At the moment (Sunday, May 21), it looks like the story is bogus. I certainly hope so.

Every time I think I've sunk to a new low of cynicism, something comes along to prove me wrong. This time, it's the Naz... I mean the Iranians.

It seems the Iranian parliament has allegedly approved a law that would require all members of other religions to wear colored badges -- yellow for Jews, red for Christians, and blue for Zoroastrians. Well, the Muslims did start the practice in the first place.

The Iranians are denying the report so far, but representatives from the U.S., Canada, and Australia have already addressed the issue.

On this one, everyone has to get together. To be honest, I've been having a hard time getting motivated to write my state representatives about opposition to the Bush administration's policies because both of our Senators are Democrats and our one Congressman is a pretty moderate Republican. But on this issue, I have written to all three.

If the report is true, then I am convinced we invaded the wrong country.

No data is safe, or, it's not just the phone companies

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone: law enforcement officers have been using the Patriot Act and general angst about terrorism to demand data from a wide variety of businesses, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (free access). Here are a few choice snippets:

"Banks, Internet-service providers and other companies that possess large amounts of data on their customers say that police and intelligence agencies have been increasingly coming to them looking for tidbits of information that could help them stop everything from money launderers to pedophiles and terrorists."

"Corporate counsel that used to see law-enforcement-related requests five times a year are now getting them sometimes dozens of times a day,' says Susan Hackett, a senior vice president and top attorney for the Association of Corporate Counsel, which represents the legal departments of leading U.S. companies."

"According to AOL executives, the most common requests in criminal cases relate to crimes against children, including abuse, abductions, and child pornography. Close behind are cases dealing with identity theft and other computer crimes. Sometimes the police requests are highly targeted and scrupulously legalistic, while other times they were seen by the company as little more than sloppy fishing expeditions. AOL says that most requests get turned down." (Emphasis added)

I know someone's going to say that it's good that the law can protect people from identity theft, let alone children from abuse. But this argument just reminds me of the poem about failure to protect Jews in Nazi Germany:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Today they're protecting children and your identity. Tomorrow they'll be protecting personal property. When do the ends stop justifying the means?

Learning from history

Insightful post on the Huffington Post from Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago. He points out that we need to ask ourselves what responsibility we have as citizens to preserve our civil liberties. He also puts this question in historical context: as a people, we have failed to ask this question before and regretted it later:

"Throughout our history, Americans have silently approved serious, sometimes grievous abuses of civil liberties, only later to bemoan their failure to act responsibly. During the Cold War, the public failed to challenge the witch-hunts of Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities; during World War II, most Americans sanctioned the mass internment of Japanese-Americans; during the post-World War I Red Scare, the public cheered on the deportation of thousands of innocent aliens; and during World War I, most Americans approved the criminal prosecution of thousands of individuals for criticizing the war or the draft. After every one of these episodes, the public came to acknowledge its error and promised not to repeat the mistake again." (Emphasis added)

To quote George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We are sadly repeating history now. I hope we don't have to wait until 2009 to stop.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sliding down the slippery slope

Here's an example of why I'm so worried about the NSA's call database: ABC News is reporting that the government is tracking some of its reporters' phone calls, according to an FBI source. If someone could explain to me how this wouldn't have a chilling effect and therefore diminish our First Amendment rights, please let me know.

The Columbia Journalism Review has been reporting on the suspicion that the government has been tracking journalists' phone calls since the beginning of the year. Here's a quote from their reaction to today's news:

"What is somewhat surprising is that everyone is so shocked about this latest revelation. As CJR Daily has been reporting since January, the latest twist has been hinted at before -- and downright alleged in two lawsuits against the Bush administration -- but memories have proved exceedingly short."

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Not worried about the phone call database? Consider it in context

Wired compiled a terrifying list of the programs we know of that potentially violate Americans' civil liberties. If you're not concerned about any one of them, what about when you consider them as a whole?

William Gibson's response to the database debacle

Boing Boing quotes William Gibson speaking on a radio show about the database debacle:

"I keep seeing that in the lower discourse of the Internet, people saying, 'Oh, they're doing it anyway.' In some way our culture believes that, and it's a real problem, because evidently they haven't been doing it anyway, and now that they've started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response."

Surveillance and wiretapping are not the same thing

A lot of the apologists for the database debacle have been quick to point out that the NSA isn't wiretapping domestic calls. But that doesn't mean what they're doing isn't surveillance. Just in case there are any doubts, let's review the definitions. From dictionary.com:

Surveillance: "Close observation of a person or group, especially one under suspicion."

Wiretapping: "A concealed listening or recording device connected to a communications circuit."

I certainly don't want the government listening to my calls. But I don't want them surveilling me either. Do you?

A Reason-able voice on the database debacle

Libertarian magazine Reason should have been the first place I checked for a reasonable reaction to the phone call database scandal. I'm sure they'll cover it thoroughly in an upcoming issue of the magazine, but here's what they've had to say so far on their blog:

"So one problem with polls indicating that most Americans are perfectly OK with all this is that they should be asking not only how people feel about what the adminstration has done so far (or what it is has admitted to doing so far) but how they feel about what it or future administrations could do based on Bush's sweeping assertion of unchecked executive power... If the executive branch could be trusted to use the data only for the limited purposes suggested by Bush's comments, it would not be such a big deal. But since neither is the case, it is a big deal."

Recall that the USA Today story says that CIA, FBI, and DEA could have access to the database. I continue to shudder.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

First of many posts on NSA call database

I've been struggling all day not to go off half-cocked about this situation, but I haven't found the words yet to describe how I feel about today's revelation by USA Today. So for now, I'll just point out one quote from an extremely reputable source: security guru Bruce Schneier:

"Who you're talking to often matters much more than what you're saying."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Bird flu film fears...

My 'favorite' quote from the Dept. of Health and Human Services' Viewer Guide to 'Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America':

"It is a work of fiction designed to entertain, not a factual accounting of a real-life event."

The unintentional irony is breathtaking.

Oversimplification all around

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post writes that his column declaring Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House correspondents' dinner 'unfunny' generated more than 3,500 emails, mostly negative. I agree with him that the email writers (if he is characterizing them accurately) oversimplify the story if they think that finding Colbert unfunny means that Cohen is 'Bush's lap dog,' and that the emailers may well have been egged on by various blogs.

But Cohen is guilty over oversimplification as well. To wit:

"What to make of all this? First, it's not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million -- not exactly 'American Idol' numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there's no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue -- seven more since I started writing this column." (emphasis added)

If Cohen wants to attribute the flood of emails to a 'digital lynch mob,' that's fine with me. Flame wars certainly can get very ugly. But if he believes that the shift away from MSM-style lecturing to new media-style conversations is a 'silly pretense,' he might want to take a look at the latest newspaper circulation numbers.

Furthermore, by choosing to focus on the emails, Cohen buried his column's real lead:

"The e-mails pulse in my queue, emanating raw hatred. This spells trouble -- not for Bush or, in 2008, the next GOP presidential candidate, but for Democrats. The anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle. (Watch out, Hillary!) I have seen this anger before -- back in the Vietnam War era. That's when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon. In this way, they managed to prolong the very war they so hated."

It's disappointing that Cohen, a 'professional journalist', allowed a (relatively) small number of 'idiots' (his word) and their 'raw, untreated and disease-laden verbal sewage' to drag his focus away from the far more important matters at hand: are the administration's domestic and foreign policies good for the country, and will the current level of anger at the administration result in success or failure for its opponents in the 2006 and 2008 elections?

Monday, May 08, 2006

La la la la la I can't hear you

In case you thought the accusations that this administration refuses to listen to criticism were overstated, The Smoking Gun has found some additional evidence. In March, the site posted a copy of Vice President Dick Cheney's requirements for his Downtime Suite when he travels.

Among other more mundane, demands, the Vice President requires that "all the televisions need to be preset to the Fox News Channel."

At least he reads the New York Times the Washington Post, which have been known to publish reports deemed treasonous by Bush supporters.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A case study in web credibility

I was just checking on the news when I saw a startling headline from the Times of London: 'Israel foils plot to kill Palestinian president.' I clicked through to the story, got the basics, then went back to Google News to see what other news sources had to say about it.

I couldn't find any. Google News said the story had been posted 55 minutes earlier. But there was nothing else on Google News about it, nor was there any mention on CNN, The New York Times, or Al Jazeera.

So I decided to wait a few hours and check back -- if it's true, I thought to myself, other news sources will pick up the story.

That thought made me realize something: web credibility isn't about trusting any single source of news. As my husband said when I explained this to him, it's about trusting news sources in the aggregate. I don't have to decide if I think the Times is a sufficiently credible source to believe the story despite the lack of other evidence. I just have to trust in the news media (new and old) as a whole.

And I do. I don't think any one news source is completely credible; but I do believe that, given the breadth and depth with of information at our fingertips, the truth will come out in the end. That's a comforting thought.

Update: There have now been a few stories in other international papers about the assassination attempt, but they all seem to quote The Times report. Even Ha'aretz couldn't independently confirm the report. For now, this story has to be relegated to the realm of rumor.

You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! Blogburst, blogs, and the MSM

Now here's a good idea: Blogburst. The new service from Austin, TX based Pluck Corp. evaluates blogs for quality and then syndicates them to newspapers for use on their websites. Bloggers don't get paid (yet), but it can help deliver traffic, which translates into dollars for blogs with advertising.

Link to AP story on San Jose Mercury

Thursday, May 04, 2006

SF Chronicle: 'Stephen Colbert has brass cojones'

The Chronicle's headline pretty much sums it up - whether you loved his performance (as I did) or hated it, you can't disagree with the chutzpah it took to target the most powerful man in the world when he's sitting less than 10 feet away.

There are more stories about the performance than I can count (over 20,000 posts on Technorati). But here's one more quote I couldn't resist, from The Guardian's Sidney Blumenthal:

"The most scathing public critique of the Bush presidency and the complicity of a craven press corps was delivered at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday by a comedian. Bush was reported afterwards to be seething, while the press corps responded with stone-cold silence. In many of their reports of the event they airbrushed out the joker."

I'm starting to think we should add a class called Introduction to Satire to our curriculum here at the journalism school.

Belated recognition of World Press Freedom Day

I wanted to post a link to this site on Tuesday, but it said the material was embargoed until Wednesday, which was World Press Freedom Day. Sadly, I got tied up in two projects yesterday and completely forgot. It's a testament to the freedom we have here and a reminder that just because we are free, we can't forget that much of the rest of the world isn't.

I can't link to it directly, but check out the cartoons on the World Association of Newspapers site -- mouse over them to see larger versions if you don't want to download them.

Also don't forget to send a protest letter to one of the most repressive regimes (look for the Protest Letter button on the page.) I picked Hu Jintao.

Senate tries to mandate free, online access to publicly-funded research

According to the Washington Post, two Senators (one R, one D) have introduced the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006, which would force publishers of federally-funded research to make that research publicly available, for free, online, six months after publication.

Based on the limited academic research I've done, I can tell you it's incredibly frustrating not to be able to get access to research papers. As Newton said, all researchers stand on the shoulders of giants -- all contributions to knowledge should be available, particularly if funded by taxpayers.

Of course, the usual suspects are fighting the bill:

But Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, promised a fight. "It is frustrating that we can't seem to get across to people how expensive it is to do the peer review, edit these articles and put them into a form everyone can understand," Schroeder said.

In the age of the Internet, everyone wants everything free, Schroeder said. "But we can't figure out what exactly the business model would be. And if you just got the raw research, you wouldn't have a clue" how to use it, she said.

You can't figure out the business model? Why don't you call the RIAA or the MPAA? They seem to have it all figured out. And, Ms. Schroeder, do me a favor -- let me decide whether I would 'have a clue.' You don't seem qualified to make that determination.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

All hail Stephen Colbert, master of irony

If you haven't seen Stephen Colbert's speech at the Washington Correspondent's Dinner, run, don't walk, to C-SPAN and prepare to hear a comic genius speak truth to power.

Colbert shocked the politicos and the Washington journalism establishment by unleashing his razor-sharp irony on the unsuspecting crowd. Here are two quotes from Salon's glowing review:

"His imitation of the quintessential GOP talking head -- Bill O'Reilly meets Scott McClellan -- uncovered the inner workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate."

"They invited Colbert to speak for levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists are all, at heart, creatures of this silly conversation. We trade in talking points and consultant-speak. We too often depend on empty language for our daily bread, and -- worse -- we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert was attacking us as well."

And here's another from Dependable Renegade:

"Stephen Colbert displayed more guts in ten minutes of performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner than the entire Bush family has in their collective lifetime."

I'm proud to say I'm a member of the Colbert Nation.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Video killed the newspaper reporter

This interesting special report from Editor & Publisher echoes what I have been hearing from newspaper editors -- daily newspaper reporters are increasingly being asked to provide multimedia elements, particularly video, with all of their stories.

Here's a quote from Argus Leader reporter Megan Myers: "There has been a concerted effort by the home office to get video with just about every story."

And another from Mary Beth Schneider from The Indianapolis Star: "It used to be that as a newsroom reporter, you had time to reflect and write the story. Now we still have to reflect, but we don't have the time."

It's a far cry from the days when I was sent to the mall with a camera to get reaction to the State of the Union speech and a picture of each person who was willing to talk to me and had watched the State of the Union speech (there weren't many, as I'm sure you can imagine.) But it's reality for today's reporters.