Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama and the Establishment press, Week 12

I felt like a light had dawned when I read this: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism." It's from a post by Clay Shirky on the state of the newspaper business, called Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable. Now, maybe the fact that it felt like a light switching on is more of a reflection of my own state of benightedness than of his degree of insight. But I think he did a great job of stating the basic business problem of American newspapers in a Twitter-length summary.

I came across it via the invaluable Digby's post, What We Need 04/12/09. She writes:

That process has actually been underway for some time and though it's worrying that something bad could happen during the transition, the truth is that many, many bad things happened at the hands of plutocrat publishers over the years, not the least of which was a bunch of wars. So, I'm not fretting and even though I confess to loving the New York Times on Sunday and depending greatly on newspapers to do what I do, I agree with Shirky that society needs journalism not newspapers. When you look at it that way, it's entirely possible that this new era will be a decided improvement over what we've known.
I'll miss magazines more than newspapers. And it's worth noting that the particular problems of the newspaper industry in the US aren't universal in other wealthy countries. And in the developing world, print newspapers are rising in popularity as literacy increases. So a hybrid print/digital model may work for many newspapers for a long time.

But unless there are changes in the laws governing newspaper ownership to reduced the possibilities of financial deals like the one that has endagered the Tribune Company's existence, the future of print newspapers really does look bleak in the US.

(By the way, if anyone happens to be wondering why I cite the titles and dates of articles I cite, it's mainly for my own convenience. I discovered a few months into my blogging experience that when I would return to an older post and try to reference a link, if the link was now dead it could be a real challenge to find the article again. But if you have the title, date, author and publication, it's normally quick to find a new link if one is available.)

Stephen Walt in The Afpak muddle (part 2): How serious is the threat? Foreign Affairs blog 04/09/09 reminds us that our media has done a really poor job reporting on terrorism, which is the primary political justification for Obama's proposal to increase the military budget and maintain military spending at astronomical levels, something around half the military spending of the entire world:

What we need, in fact, is a political elite (and a responsible media) that will help Americans keep the terrorism problem in perspective. Terrorism is a tactic that various groups have used throughout history, and it will remain with us for the foreseeable future. Dramatic incidents like the recent Mumbai attacks are going to happen again, no matter how hard we try to prevent them, and that includes the possibility of attacks on American soil. But if we can keep suicidal extremists from obtaining nuclear weapons, they will not be able to threaten our way of life in any meaningful way.
I give Obama - and his Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates - credit for going after some of the most egregious abuses in military procurement. Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also deserve credit for backing off the "War on Terror" rhetoric that the world had come to associate with the Bush Doctrine and the Cheney-Bush torture policy and their primitive, fanatical Good-vs-Evil framing of foreign policy.

But our major media went merrily along as Cheney and Bush inflated a dangerous but small and politically isolated group of international terrorists, Osama bin Laden's Al Qa'ida, into a threat as great as if not worse than Hitler Germany or the decades-long nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. And for all the improvements he's made, Obama is continuing that threat inflation to justify escalating the Afghanistan-Pakistan War.

The press could do us all a big favor and devote some serious effort to telling the story of the still-unsolved anthrax attacks of 2001. Meryl Nass maintains a blog, not updated daily, called Anthrax Vaccine where she follows issues related to the use of anthrax in terrorism and other forms of warfare, and the 2001 anthrax attack in particular. In FBI Press Release details the meaning of the ASM presentations in Baltimore last week--with comments 03/07/09, she summarizes the current deficiencies of the FBI's explanation of the case, which they ask us to think was solved with the suicide of one government anthrax scientist. The FBI handling of that case has been scandalously bad. They even lost a major lawsuit from one scientist who they had falsely implicated in the attack.

If our major media were more journalism and less infotainment - a utopian thought, I know, they could find plenty to report about with the military budget. Wired's Danger Room blog presents a question our mainstream press should be investigating (Pentagon Reboot: Where Will the New Commandos Come From? 04/08/09):

It's kind of gotten lost in all the chatter about future tanks and stealth destroyers. But the U.S. special operations forces are big winners in the Pentagon's new budget, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls for adding 2,800 more special operators who would swell the commando ranks by more than five percent.

But the win comes with major questions. Like: where will these guys come from, and how will the military keep them? The services are already straining to keep what operators they have. Even with $150,000 retention bonuses, the op tempo that is driving operators out of the service and into the arms of contractors like Blackwater Xe isn't likely to abate anytime soon. There's Afghanistan to keep U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) busy, plus lots of potential hotspots such as Africa and South America. Even withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011 will still leave plenty of demand for trainers as well as covert/direct action missions that the Iraqis can't or won't perform themselves.
Ironically, Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby who works so hard to get liberals to be genuinely critical-minded about mainstream press reporting, was underwhelmed in this 04/09/09 post about the criticisms of press coverage of Obama's proposed budget that he has seen. He views the Establishment press coverage on this issue as being not so much sucker by Republican talking points as factually muddled.

In fact, the general reporting about military spending is rather spectacularly bad, and has been for a long time. One of the big problems, as I understand it, is the fact that a large part of the Pentagon budget consists of capital projects, and the federal government doesn't use a capital budgeting process like states, localities and businesses. If you've got a $30 billion capital program to be spent over five years, the federal accounting shows it as $30 billion in the year it's appropriated. So the military budget is actually a poor measure of annual military spending, particularly in year-to-year comparisons. See the the Congressional Budget Office report Capital Budgeting (undated but it references a 2008 source) Brookings report A Capital Budget for the Federal Government? by Charles Schultze 04/24/1998 for some of the issues involved.

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