Thursday, September 18, 2008

Iraq the economic quagmire

Seven American soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed early Thursday in the desert of southern Iraq, the U.S. military said. Officials said the crash was not caused by enemy fire.
The military also announced that a U.S. soldier is being held in the shooting deaths of two fellow Americans on Sunday at their patrol base south of Baghdad.
The military did not identify the soldier in custody but identified the two who were killed as Staff Sgt. Darris J. Dawson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., and Sgt. Wesley R. Durban, 26, of Hurst, Tex.

The above is from Sudarsan Raghavan's "Helicopter Crash Kills 7 Troops In Iraq" (Washington Post). We highlighted a version of that in yesterday's snapshot. We also highlighted a version of Stephen Farrell's "G.I. Is Held in Killings Of Soldiers At Iraq Base" (New York Times -- we highlighted a version of it at the Times' owned International Herald Tribune). Farrell's problem is waiting until PARAGRAPH NINE to mention the helicopter crash. The headline writer isn't interested in it. Now some may argue 'old news.' There was no reason the paper couldn't have made it a front page story Thursday morning (Thursday morning in the US). The crash took place Thursday morning . . . in Iraq. What kind of a weak-ass paper can't put something together for the front page with hours before midnight? (That's EST.) They had plenty of time. They chose not to.

Which puts the responsibility on them, come Friday, to cover it as news.

Burying it in in the ninth paragraph is not covering it as news. Seven US soldiers dead and the Times treats it as an after-thought. Which brings up a bigger question, is Howell Raines back in charge at the paper? Looking at today's front page, it certainly appears that way. Seven US soldiers killed in a helicopter crash can't even get a headline deep in the paper but you've got ___ Oprah Winfrey on the front page? For a really bad 'lifestyle' feature. Saudi women find a role model! Who gives a crap? That's not hard news, it's not a front page story. It is a feature article at best (and as written, "best" shouldn't be used to describe it. Katherine Zoepf writes a really bad feature that most likely would have been reworked if she was turning it into a high school newspaper. The lede is too cutesy -- and too predictable -- for an adult journalist.) You've got room for that crap on the front page. Then you've got Carlotta Gall who does do hard news but on a day when the paper can't note 7 US soldiers dead, the idea that we're going to treat Afghanistan's impending winter as news is just laughable. Afghanistan has that winter every year. Gall's got at an actual piece of reporting; however, it is not front page news.

To finish out the Times' trouble with news, Steven Lee Myers and Sam Dagher (A5) contribute "Agreement With Iraq Over Troops Is at Risk". This is the Friday paper. Tina Susman (Los Angeles Times) was reporting that not just yesterday but also on Wednesday (in plenty of time to get mentioned in that day's "Iraq snapshot"). To cover up the long delay in the New York Times finally getting around to the story, they refer to Nouri al-Maliki's Wednesday TV interview as "a television interview this week". Think about how stupid the paper either hopes or believes its readers are that they think they can get away with that.

Day after day, Iraq has to wait. It's an ongoing war, but it's treated as an after thought. And a Wednesday interview (the focal point of today's report) has the paper playing, "Let's see if we can just ignore it. Maybe something else will develop!" You had news break faster during Vietnam, during Korea and during WWII than you do on Iraq from the New York Times today -- despite technological advances that should really put an end to the long delays.

What's being reported is an interview al-Maliki gave on Wednesday, an interview broadcast on Iraqi TV. This was not the reporters were 'embedded' somewhere, this was not reporters far from a telephone. This was a case of, "Oh, it can't wait." (And on the waiting, blame the editorial staff and not the reporters.) Iraq is not important to the paper (which certainly explains the support for Barack -- and that's editorial and reporter support for Barack) at all. At this point, all the money wasted (and it is wasted) staffing Iraq by the paper is nothing but a big number (of dollars spent) that the paper can point to with pride. "Look at how much we spent!" is supposed to cover up for the failure to actually produce any reporting.

And that's nothing to brag about. Wasting money is nothing to brag about at any time but especially at a time when news outlets are laying off employees left and right, offering early retirement packages, expecting a single reporter to now be responsible for jobs far beyond his or her rate of pay or job duties as traditionally outlined. It is an embarrassment and does not demonstrate a commitment to the news, it only demonstrates a commitment to burn money.

The paper has an Iraq blog which rarely produces anything of note. With all the employees they have stationed in Iraq, the paper's blog should be able to produce something. With far less reporters, other papers are doing so. (This month, the strongest Iraq blog by a paper has consistently been the Los Angeles Times' Babylon & Beyond.) Not since the infancy of the Carter presidency, when Rolling Stone decided they were going to be a DC player, has anyone wasted so much money for so damn little. And you have to wonder, when the bills are closely examined, where all the money went? (Booze in the case of Rolling Stone, but don't hire a known alcoholic -- active in his disease -- and party boy to run your DC desk while at the same time imposing no conditions on what will be produced and by when.)

The New York Times is not the only one failing on Iraq; however, their failure is all the more glaring when you grasp how many millions are spent each year to staff Iraq. The paper seems to think it can bluff or bully its way into some journalism prizes for their bad coverage by pointing to the financial costs of the coverage. Which makes a great deal of sense if you think back to the paper's notorious story in the seventies about a 'meal' on American Express' dime. What others would be appalled by, the paper takes delight in. What others see as gross excess, the Times thinks guarantees quality.

And, to be clear, it is an editorial issue that goes straight to top. In terms of sheer numbers, Sam Dagher (for example) can point to having produced nearly every day since Sunday (produced something that made it into the paper). It is equally true that at any given moment, the paper's Iraqi staff are working on a number of stories that will never pan out or result in anything worthy of print. That's due to a 'story' not turning out to be one, that's due to not being able to nail down a story and assorted other details. But the paper chooses to do a blog and they are very happy (at the top) with what it's not producing. The only thing they can point to truly worth reading that made it to the blog this month was a report by, get this, one of the bodyguards for the paper. It was well written, no question, and the bodyguard may end up a reporter (certainly skill and talent was demonstrated) but to have the large staff which they do (staff of reporters) and to produce so damn little is appalling. This month, Tina Susman's covered the sandstorm during the handover, the increasing attacks by the Iraqi government on press freedom. The Times seems to think posting a PDF of outgoing Gen David Petreaus farewell letter qualified as working hard. And, repeating, the critique goes to the top. Clearly, the blog has demonstrated (in the past) the ability to cut loose but the paper didn't care. Erica Good, for example, months ago revealed that the laughable claim that Iraq does an AIDS test on everyone coming into Iraq was a joke. (They do not do a test on everyone physically crossing a border and, in Good's case, she arrived by plane and was waived through without a test leading her to conclude that they don't feel a married woman over fifty is at risk of AIDS.) If the paper wanted a blog that offered anything of value, the reporters have demonstrated often enough that it is doable that the paper would be offering that. With all the money being spent, there's really no use to offer so little but that's what the paper appears to be satisfied with.

[McClatchy's Inside Iraq has done strong work this month as usual. It's just that Susman and others at the Los Angeles Times have done even stronger work than they usually do and provided important details at the blog that might not be able to make it into the paper but that do increase the understanding of what is going on in Iraq.]

Brady notes this from Team Nader:

A Case of Mistaken Identity and Lessons from a Parrot


A Case of Mistaken Identity and Lessons from a Parrot .

I have always been skeptical when people blame a lack of news coverage on some nefarious plot by the media. Most people who cry media ‘blackout’ aren't that newsworthy, have stories that don't check out, or don't pitch their story that well. The truth is, unless you have a compelling, timely, well pitched story, today’s media will not cover it. They are too burdened by ever tighter web-driven deadlines, fewer reporting staff, and the barrage of sophisticated public relations professionals who definitely do know how to pitch a story, and outnumber reporters 5-to-1.

But after a full week working as Ralph Nader's media coordinator, I have a new perspective.

The story of the decade is breaking, we have the candidate of the century on this story--and we are getting no coverage by major media.

After years of neglect, deregulation, and sharp declines in corporate transparency and corporate accountability, the gig is up and Wall Street is being shaken to its foundations. What has already happened towers over the savings and loan crisis, and we are not even close to the end, or even the beginning of the end. The Wall Street bailouts and wipe outs are on track to be the biggest frontal assault on financial consumers and taxpayers in history.

Ralph Nader, America's undisputed protector of consumers, has uncannily tracked the chain of events--on the documented public record--that has led our economy down this devastating path. In countless letters, testimonies and reports--all warning of the dangers of unrestrained greed absent accountability and transparency (check for yourself at, Ralph proposed alternative paths, and all along the way he was ignored or ridiculed. Now he has a plan to soften the blow, get us out of the morass, and help ensure it doesn't happen again. But no major press will cover it. No New York Times. No Wall Street Journal. No Associated Press. No network news. Nothing but a pundit on C-Span, kudos from a newsletter and a little article on the web site Politico.

The September 16th Washington Post summed up the gravity of this issue on its front page: "Yesterday's meltdown on Wall Street brought the economy roaring back to the center of the presidential campaign, and the question for the final seven weeks of the general-election campaign is whether Barack Obama or John McCain can convince voters that he is capable of leading the country out of the morass." If the meltdown on Wall Street and bailout by taxpayers is the deciding factor of this election:

  • Which candidate has the best record for consumer protection, standing up for small investors and taxpayers in America?
  • Which candidate has been warning us all along the way of the dangers of deregulating Wall Street?
  • Which candidate has a plan to get us out of this morass, restore accountability and transparency to Wall Street, and can actually be trusted to do what he says?

His name is not Barack Obama or Senator McCain, and he is invisible as far as the media is concerned.

Yesterday, Ralph Nader issued a chronology of the lead-up to the current meltdown, and his ten-point plan to restore a semblance of accountability, transparency, and incentives that would steer Wall Street away from short-termist, out-of-control casino capitalism toward fulfilling its proper function of efficiently allocating capital to advance our long-term economic well-being. The plan was sent out to 6,000 reporters, including specific e-mails and phone calls to the editors and reporters from the major newspapers that are on this beat and evening TV news producers. Aside from the Fox cable business channel, no major media picked it up.

After a series of editorial board meetings we did this week with the Washington Post and New York Times Washington Bureau, I think I know why. When we asked them what their standards for covering Ralph Nader were, it was clear they didn't have any. But Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Washington Post, hit the nail on the head. He said, "I like some of your issues, but I don't see how you being a presidential candidate affects them. I see you more as a consumer advocate." In other words, if Ralph was just some guy running for president on the ballot in 45 states with 5 percent support in the polls, he might actually get some coverage in that role, rather than having his giant stature as a consumer advocate trivialize his presidential candidate stature.

So today, when AP broke a story that the Federal bank insurance fund was dwindling and in danger of needing a taxpayer bailout, I tried taking Fred up on his advice and pitched to the economic editors and financial reporters, emphasizing ‘Ralph the consumer advocate.’ It happened that just two months ago Ralph wrote a letter to Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, who have oversight over the FDIC, warning of exactly this and suggesting some measures to shore up the FDIC reserves before it was too late. As usual Congress dismissed Ralph's warning, with Congressman Spencer Bachus saying there was "no factual basis" for his concern. Six years ago, Ralph warned of the potential shakeout from Clinton giving most of the commercial banks free federal deposit insurance since 1995, saying, "Don't be surprised if this latest banking reform deteriorates into little more than another version of the savings and loan deposit insurance reforms of 1980 which helped fuel that industry's demise and lightened taxpayers' pockets by several hundred billions of dollars."

Here we have a substantive story where Ralph is right in the sweet spot from the beginning of the problem to the present. I phoned up Marcy Jones, the AP SEC reporter who had broken the story to let her know Ralph had called it six years back, and that he now had a plan to fix it. But Marcy didn't want to hear from Ralph either, and referred to me to the political desk. I called the AP Washington Politics Editor, Donna Cassata, with great enthusiasm, saying “Now I have something that is too good to pass on.” But she passed.

The Wall Street meltdown story has Ralph Nader's name all over it, and as a candidate or as a consumer advocate he should be getting an avalanche of requests and invitations--not a stone-wall.

That's ok. This story is not going away and neither are we. If need be, our supporters will overwhelm the political and economic editors and producers, taking the public relations professional-to-journalist ratio to a new order of magnitude.

In the mean time, thank goodness for our Cardozo the Parrot video, which goes to show that even sheep cannot ignore a talking bird.


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