Don’t Rely on American and British News About Europe

Brussels Belgium
View of Brussels, Belgium from the Mont des Arts, May 20, 2010 (William Murphy)

If you want to understand what’s going on in continental European politics, don’t rely solely on American and British sources. English-language commentators routinely misread the mood and have a tendency to project their own doubts about the European Union on the people living in it.

Take, for example, all the attention for Geert Wilders in the Dutch election in March. Read more “Don’t Rely on American and British News About Europe”

Clinton’s Emails Crowd Out Trump Scandals for No Good Reason

Hillary Clinton
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Muscatine, Iowa, October 6, 2015 (Hillary for America/Mike Davidson)

I thought we were done with this, but it’s one week out from the election and Hillary Clinton’s emails are a thing again.

We still don’t know why exactly. In a letter to Congress on Friday that resurrected the issue, James Comey, the FBI director, wrote that more emails that “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” had been recovered.

We have since learned that those emails were recovered from the laptop of former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who is under investigation for allegedly sexting a minor and whose estranged wife, Huma Abedin, is a top Clinton campaign staffer.

Comey told Congress the FBI could not yet assess if the emails found on Weiner’s computer were relevant to its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state; an investigation that was closed earlier this year after the FBI found she had done nothing illegal.

So what was the point of informing Congress? Read more “Clinton’s Emails Crowd Out Trump Scandals for No Good Reason”

Reporters Can’t Find Balance Between Clinton, Trump

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton makes a speech in Chicago, Illinois, March 14
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton makes a speech in Chicago, Illinois, March 14 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)

Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, laments that news outlets in the United States are too keen to find an equivalence between the two major parties’ presidential candidates when there is none.

Polls suggest that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump is particularly trusted by a majority of Americans. “It’s perfect” for journalists who are desperate not to be seen as taking sides, writes Mann. Read more “Reporters Can’t Find Balance Between Clinton, Trump”

Reporters, Learn to Stop Worrying About Clinton-Trump

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Iowa, January 23
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Iowa, January 23 (Hillary for America/Barbara Kinney)

If you didn’t know any better, you would think Hillary Clinton was losing the presidential election to Donald Trump.

CNBC’s Jake Novak argues that she is making big mistakes, from “letting Trump drive the agenda” (read: challenging the ridiculous things he says) to not breaking with Barack Obama (the most popular outgoing president in recent history) on “anything” (except a trade deal with twelve Pacific nations that comprise 40 percent of the world’s economy).

Alex Pareene of Gawker worries that the Clinton campaign is inadvertently helping Trump by characterizing him as a “loose cannon”. Building Trump up “as a reckless and virile force of nature” only feeds “the myth of his power and strength,” he writes.

Farfetched? Consider David Frum’s latest in The Atlantic, which suggests that Clinton could lose in November if she appeals too exclusively to women at the expense of young Latino males.

There is not a shred of evidence this could happen, mind you. If anything, the polls show Latinos abandoning the Republican Party in droves with the biggest shift taking place among — wait for it — young voters! More than three times as many Latinos under the age of 35 now think the Republican Party is hostile to them as compared to 2012, The New York Times reports. But let’s not get that in the way of Frum’s imagination.

What’s going on here? Read more “Reporters, Learn to Stop Worrying About Clinton-Trump”

The How-To Guide to Modern Propaganda

Russian president Vladimir Putin is seen on television screens in a store in Krasnoyarsk, April 17, 2014
Russian president Vladimir Putin is seen on television screens in a store in Krasnoyarsk, April 17, 2014 (Reuters/Corbis/Ilya Naymushin)

So many arguments across the Internet these bicker over the same thing: everyone’s sources are wrong. To post an article from a British source automatically makes it suspect of a pro-British bias; anything from America is Western propaganda; Saudi news agencies get their checks cut by the king while Al Jazeera is beholden to the al-Thani family and their interests.

Propaganda as a means of warfare is as old as war itself but only in the twentieth century did it become a pillar of any self-respecting state’s defense strategy. World War I saw posters; World War II saw films; the Cold War manipulated newspapers and media.

Now, in the Information Age, when facts are so readily verifiable, propaganda machines have gone into a node mode and the most successful propaganda regime of all is Russia. The Russian template has more effectively covered up Putin’s weaknesses than any other modern propaganda machine. It’s done so well that Facebook comments are riddled with adoration for Putin’s war in Syria, claiming Russia’s relatively small-scale air war will do something the much larger American-led coalition can’t.

What’s happened here? What kind of lessons can we draw from the Russian media machine? Here now is the How-To Guide to Modern Propaganda. Read more “The How-To Guide to Modern Propaganda”

Navalny Media Coverage Reveals Western Anti-Putin Bias

Thursday’s conviction of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny to five years imprisonment on an embezzlement charge rekindled Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s supposedly authoritarian governing style, even as Navalny was released from custody a day later to await his appeal and stand in Moscow’s mayoral election in September.

Navalny’s trial may have been politically motivated but as is unfortunately usual, many media overestimate his popularity and have glossed over his intolerant tendencies. Read more “Navalny Media Coverage Reveals Western Anti-Putin Bias”

The Dangerous Course of Journalism in Pakistan

The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, is commonly seen by Pakistanis and foreigners alike as the most powerful institution in the Pakistani government. Pakistan’s civilian politicians are often wobbly on core issues that concern the United States and the international community. Most of the bureaucrats in the ministries, as well as most of the city level officials, are seen as corrupt players in a duplicitous Pakistani political atmosphere.

The Pakistani military and its partners at the ISI, on the other hand, are often the first that are met by American diplomats when they travel to the country. The ISI is responsible for the one policy area that the Pakistani government is incessantly focused on — self preservation. Intelligence officials in the directorate are both feared and loved in Pakistan. Feared because the organization lurks in the shadows and is known for making dissidents disappear but loved because Pakistani intelligence chiefs are the first line of defense against their Indian archival.

Indeed, the United States fully grasps the civil-military power imbalance in Pakistan. Prime ministers like Benazir Bhutto and Yousaf Raza Gilani and presidents like Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are no match for the likes of a Pervez Musharraf, Parvez Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Pakistani politicians have even expressed their deep displeasure with the army meddling in civilian politics — an intervention that sometimes overturns everything these men and women have been working for throughout their careers.

Nevertheless, the army is still what draws the American foreign policy establishment into the country on most of the important issues. The conventional wisdom is that the United States can always worry about Pakistan’s economy at a later date. It is Afghanistan, terrorism, Islamist extremism, nuclear proliferation and South Asian security that need to be dealt with now.

Yet the ISI, and indeed the Pakistani Military as a whole, has had a particularly bad month. After failing to detect American aircraft during the Osama bin Laden operation, Pakistani generals were lambasted by their civilian counterparts for incompetence. It did not help the military’s case that the world’s most wanted terrorist was hiding out only a few miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

Then, weeks later, militants associated with the Tehrik i-Taliban Pakistan (or Pakistani Taliban) launched a highly coordinated and impressive strike against a Pakistani naval base in the port city of Karachi. The insurgent group held the base for roughly fifteen hours until they were driven out and killed by security forces. The episode claimed the lives of ten security personnel and the destruction of two American-made planes. The attack once again highlighted worries over whether the lower levels of Pakistan’s armed forces were being infiltrated by extremists, a concern that American officials have been carrying for years.

But the latest incident — the abduction and killing of a Pakistani journalist — will perhaps receive the most attention and the most criticism from members of Pakistan’s press and civilian government. While the ISI has not been fingered for the journalist’s death, human rights groups suspect that the intelligence organization may have been involved.

The ISI is the lead spy agency against other countries but the organization is also known for monitoring its own citizens. It is almost routine procedure for Pakistani journalists to be rounded up by Pakistani intelligence over reporting that the agency deems unflattering. The military brass looks down upon any article, story or television program that spurs a negative reaction toward the security establishment, often calling such articles schemes meant to deliberately weaken their support and institutional prestige among Pakistani society. Umar Cheema, an award winning investigative journalist, was kidnapped and beaten last year for an article that he had written about the army. The ISI was never implicated for the beating, but Mr Cheema believes that they were the ones who carried out the abduction.

The death of Syed Saleem Shahzad on May 31 may be another case of journalism being punished by the Pakistani state. Kidnapped in Islamabad, he was found dead one hundred and fifty miles away from the capital, his bloated body showing marks of beatings and torture. The ISI quickly denied accusations that it was involved but its leadership certainly had a motive — Shahzad’s latest piece was about a possible connection between Islamic militants and the Pakistani army. Shahzad also reported to Human Rights Watch, the most internationally respected human rights watchdog group, that he was receiving threats from the ISI for years over his work.

The Committee to Protect Journalists already ranks Pakistan as the most dangerous place for reporters. The disappearance and killing of another, whoever was involved, will not help the country move down the list. And neither will the ISI regain its international credibility if instances like this continue to occur. In world politics, you do not need to be proven guilty. Mere speculation is often enough to warrant a guilty verdict. In this case, there is plenty of suspicion to go around for Pakistan’s intelligence directorate.

If Only American Media Were More Like Canada’s

Canadian legislators recently ruled against repealing a decade-old law that prevents broadcasters from supplying “false or misleading” information. According to The Huffington Post, it’s a victory for “fans of enlightenment, democracy and justice” who can take comfort knowing that “Fox News will not be moving into Canada after all!”

According to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who, in the past, has alleged that the United States government covered up connections between inoculation and childhood autism and blamed the Republican Party for “stealing” the 2004 presidential election — Canada is the nirvana of high quality journalism. “Political dialogue in Canada is marked by civility, modesty, honesty, collegiality and idealism that have pretty much disappeared on the American airwaves.”

The reason is that in 1987 President Ronald Reagan repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” which forced American broadcasters to cover opposing points of view on any given issue. With the rise of Fox News, television reporting has become “toxic, overtly partisan, biased and dishonest,” writes Kennedy.

As recent as 2007, Kennedy referred to conservative commentators Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and John Stossel as “traitors.” It’s probably Fox News’ fault that liberals have become so “toxic” and “overtly partisan” as well.

In his latest Huffington Post entry, he specifically targets Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper who favored repeal of his country’s most stringent media law. Read more “If Only American Media Were More Like Canada’s”

Who’s Afraid of Big Media?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the United States Justice Department today approved a merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable and Internet provider, with NBC Universal which is mostly owned by General Electrics (GE).

Comcast and GE announced their buyout agreement for NBC in December 2009. Comcast intends to own 51 percent of NBC while GE will retain 49 percent of its shares.

Regulators took more than a year to approve the sale but attached some conditions. Comcast will have to surrender NBC’s online video website Hulu and ensure that NBC programming is available to competing cable operators.

Or, if you adhere to an anti-business mentality, it “sets the table for Comcast to turn the Internet into cable television, where it has the ability to speed up its content, slow down or block its competitors such as Netflix, and hike the rates for its programming and services.”

That is, according to Josh Silver, president of the an organization that calls itself Free Press. At The Huffington Post, he writes that Americans should be afraid and “mad as hell” about the merger.

Silver’s Free Press claims to advocate “vibrant, diverse and independent” news media; regards media “reform” as a “civil rights issue” and campaigns against the “corrupt media policy” that currently dominates in the United States.

The new Comcast, he writes, “will control an obscene number of media outlets, including the NBC broadcast network, numerous cable channels, two dozen local NBC and Telemundo stations, movie studios, online video portals, and the physical network that distributes that media content to millions of Americans through Internet and cable connections.”

Such power in the hands of a single company absolutely petrifies Silver and he wants his government to protect him against the specter of media monopoly. In the long run he fears that the merger will squeeze out “what’s left of independent, diverse voices from television dials” and predicts that it will “forever [change] the Internet as we know it.”

As television, radio, phone and other services become Internet-based, cable Internet service is becoming the only connection that’s fast enough to handle streaming video and cutting-edge applications. That means you’re stuck with whatever Comcast and their cable buddies dish out.

Those “cable buddies” — otherwise known as the competition — should prevent exactly what Silver fears however: unreasonable prices. In a free market, where companies are allowed to merge and expand at will, there will always be alternatives to consumers, as long as there are enough who are willing to pay for it.

But Silver can’t meet those conditions because he wants the impossible: high quality news content online that’s cheap if not totally free of charge. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that news and cable companies simply cannot (continue) to provide a service for free.

The Comcast-NBC merger is a “disaster,” according to Silver, “for anyone who hopes the American public might someday emerge from the propaganda morass that is embodied by cable television, and now threatens to consume the Internet.”

Our democracy is certain to fail if we cannot figure out a way to foster media that is less sensational and superficial, and more thoughtful and informative.

Who is to determine what is “thoughtful” and “informative” news? How would he ensure that “independent, diverse voices” are heard in news media? And how exactly does sensationalism undermine the fabric of American democracy? Silver answers none of those questions.

He is disappointed with President Barack Obama and the FCC for not having stopped the merger. They should have been more aggressive in testing the limits of antitrust law, he suggests. Does America really need even more invasive laws against free enterprise?

If Silver’s proposals were implemented it would effectively amount to government control of the news media. Corruption is invariably the rule rather than the exception in markets where the state decides which companies are allowed to cooperate and merge and exist because it is the last method at business’ disposal to try to turn a profit — squeezing out precisely the vibrant and innovative startups Silvers professes to cherish.

Government control of the news would moreover amount to censorship. Does Silver really want the state to decide for him what’s “thoughtful” and “informative” news? If it heralds the demise of Fox News probably, but what gives him or anyone the right to deprive millions of viewers and listeners and readers of the news they like to consume?

Consumer demand currently drives the (at least partially) free media market in the United States. There are major news channels for people of any political inclination. There are major newspapers for readers of any level of superficiality or intelligence. And anyone can create their own blog or website to service a niche that’s too small for major news providers to cover. The Comcast-NBC merger won’t change any of that. But even if it would, it couldn’t stop competitors from finding alternatives. People always have. People always will.

European “Elitism” or American Chagrin

It’s startling how some left-wing economists in the United States have convinced themselves that the Greek debt crisis is evidence of a disdain on the part of the European establishment. It looks like there is still a powerful streak of resentment toward presumed European elitism running through the veins of American commentary.

Paul Krugman previously blamed the “arrogance” of the European policy elite for pushing the eurozone “into adopting a single currency well before the continent was ready for such an experiment.” He liked to blame the euro for all of Greece’s problems, ignoring the simple truth that the country would probably have got into much bigger trouble, and definitely much faster, if it hadn’t been able to rely on the relative stability of the single currency. Read more “European “Elitism” or American Chagrin”