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42 posts from May 2009

May 22, 2009

"Right now, to me he's, like, the dumbest person on this Earth."

Meet the four hapless dudes who allegedly plotted to blow up synagogues in New York, the scheming informant who recruited them, and the deeply sketchy FBI agent who reeled them in.

The title of this post is a quote from the sister of one of the accused plotters.

Ex-Asst. U.S. Attorney indicted for murder of federal witness

A former assistant U.S. attorney was indicted for murder, mortgage fraud, and racketeering in New Jersey earlier this week.

As if that wasn't sensational enough, the murder victim was a federal witness slated to testify against his client. Bergrin is also accused of attempting to hire a hitman to kill another witness.

The indicted lawyer, Paul Bergrin served as assistant U.S. attorney from 1985 to 1990.

May 21, 2009

Speaking of journalists getting screwed: Columbia J-School vs. Erin Siegel

Photojournalist Erin Siegel says she was unfairly denied the chance to graduate with her class at Columbia J-School for turning in extra work at her thesis adviser's request.

Siegel got permission to work on the same project for her MA thesis and her book seminar. She even created a PowerPoint presentation explaining to her supervisors how she was going to break down the work. Siegel agreed to write a book and turn in an abridged version of that manuscript as a Master's thesis. The result was a 16,000 word manuscript.

At the last minute, Siegel's thesis adviser suggested that she submit the whole thing, instead of just a 5000-word excerpt. She did. When the book seminar prof found out, he accused Siegel of deciet and flunked her out of his course.

Continue reading "Speaking of journalists getting screwed: Columbia J-School vs. Erin Siegel" »

Do journalists deserve to get paid?

In a recent op/ed, media economist Robert G. Picard argues that journalists deserve low wages until they can elevate their output above that of a random person with a flip-cam: "Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren't creating much value these days."

Picard posits that journalists deserve low wages because technological interventions have rendered their profession largely obsolete. He doesn't think journalists add much now that anyone can report the news on a blog.

Op/ed writers are in direct competition with blogs, but reporters aren't.

A professional reporter working a beat with institutional support and editorial supervision can generate a lot of value that a shifting cast of volunteer bloggers can't match. Sure, we can all think of examples where the media have been ineffectual or even destructive--but consider the sheer volume of reported information about the world around us that we consume like oxygen.

That's not to to denigrate bloggers, it's just that most of them contribute something different--typically, analysis and synthesis of published reporting. There are plenty of blogs that report the news, like TPM and the Center for Independent Media blogs--but these sites are staffed by paid reporters who work their beats as like any other journo.

Picard simply has his facts wrong. User-generated content hasn't eclipsed professional reporting or even presented serious competition. Occasionally, you'll see a viewer-submitted photo of a tornado or a forest fire on CNN, but the overwhelming majority of the visuals are still professionally produced.

He claims that journalism has become deskilled. If anything the opposite is true: The internet has enabled many non-journalists to hone reporting skills they might never have cultivated otherwise (cf. Marcy Wheeler). The supply of skilled journalists currently exceeds the demand, which drives down wages--but that's not the same as saying that the supply is excessive because anyone can now do the job.

News is a volume business. It simply takes time and money to generate the steady stream of content that we've become accustomed to from our newspapers. There are no shortcuts. We can't expect volunteers to pick up the slack by covering stories in their spare time. Reporting as we know it requires a certain amount of command and control. The reporters don't just decide what to cover based on their whims at the moment, they get assigned stories by an editor who has some larger vision of what the daily mix should look like. There's no way a distributed armies of volunteers will reliably attain that kind of coordination. If you want someone to reliably cover boring school board meetings you have to do it the old fashioned way: Paying them to do the job.

Just try to get your all your news from blogs. Pick any subject you like, crime, courts, the state house, Congress and try to piece together the events of today using only original reporting from independent, unpaid bloggers. I bet you can't do it. You'll find extensive discussion of the events of the day and probably come away much better informed than if you just sat down with a couple newspapers--but you'll find the professional reporting provides the raw material for the vast majority of news-oriented blogging. Newspapers also provide raw material for a lot of TV and magazine journalism, not to mention fodder for congressional investigations, open source intelligence, and more.

Obviously, the professional press is nowhere near as good as it could be. Part of the problem is that papers don't have the resources to underwrite ambitious investigations or employ experienced reporters with deep knowledge of their beats. As jouro-turned-TV-producer David Simon likes to say, you can't keep doing more with less.

For the most part, people aren't declining to pay for the news because it's not good enough. They're just hoping that someone else will pay for them.

It's not print journalists who are obsolete, its the business model that supports them. Newspapers used to be able to subsidize hard news-gathering with classified ads and color advertising supplements, but those revenue streams have dried up. Blame the killer Craigslist. 

May 19, 2009

Mayor Richard M. Daley

Mayor Richard M. Daley, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.


Mayor Daley of Chicago at DMI's Marketplace of Ideas symposium on green roofs, yesterday.

Obama and Iraq

Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker:

On Iraq, Obama has persuaded the American people that he is ending the war, when in fact what he is doing is attempting to manage a responsible transition that reduces American combat activity considerably but leaves large numbers of American forces in the country to promote Iraqi stability and protect American interests.

That's pretty accurate, except for the part about managing a responsible transition. As long as large numbers of American troops remain in Iraq to protect American interests and "promote stability," there's no transition at all. That's what the troops are supposedly doing right now, before the promised end of the war. I'm all for declaring victory and going home, as long as we actually go home. Re-branding occupation as victory is neither transformative nor responsible.

The rise of private policing in the U.S.

A disturbing item from ISN Security Watch about how private security forces are replacing real police officers on many critical beats throughout the country:

Fast forward nine years later and one finds a young industry built almost entirely on the backs of former military and police personnel who have provided everything from diplomatic, convoy, embassy, weapon storage and energy infrastructural security to gathering intelligence, conducting interrogations, patrolling borders on land, fighting pirates on sea and transporting goods and personnel by air. It would seem there is nothing these forces cannot do. [ISN]

According to the story, some cities are actually pushing to give private security forces the power of arrest.  What transparent union-busting. These cities don't want to pay pensions and benefits to real police officers, so they're falling back on disposable rent-a-cops. Ironically, most of these officers are retired police, so they're cashing in on their publicly-funded training and expertise while taking jobs away from new cops.

Another attractive feature of private contractors is lack of accountability. Private contractors don't have to get elected. Unlike police departments, security contractors are usually limited liability companies that can just fold if they get sued.

Private policy is not good value for public money. It might seem cheap in the short term, but the erosion of standards and the lack of accountability make it a false economy.

Mexico police chief accused of running narco death squad

The police chief of Tapachula, two of his commanders, and the city's former head of public safety were arrested on suspicion of running a death squad for Los Zetas in southern Mexico over the weekend:

Police in southern Mexico, meanwhile, said they arrested a gang of at least six Gulf cartel assassins, including two women, who were allegedly commanded by top police officers.

The police chief, two commanders and a former public safety director in the city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, were also detained on suspicion of leading the hit gang.

The suspects allegedly worked for the Zetas, a gang of enforcers linked to the Gulf cartel. Police and soldiers seized dozens of grenades and assault rifles during the weekend raid in which the alleged assassins were captured, state prosecutors said.

Drug corruption scandals have blossomed across Mexico recently — in states far from the U.S. border region, where the drug battles have long been concentrated. [AP]

The original Los Zetas were defectors from the Mexican special forces who found that they could make a better living by changing sides in the drug war. The United States played a key role in training the Mexican special forces to fight the drug war in the late 1990's.

May 15, 2009

FEC fines Lieberman campaign $50,000 over street money

The FEC finally fined Joe Lieberman's campaign for improperly dumping over a hundred thousand dollars in cash on the street in the final days of the Lieberman/Lamont primary in 2006:

The FEC reached the plea deal with Lieberman’s campaign in February. The terms of the agreement were released publicly by the agency on Friday.

Lieberman’s campaign “withdrew very large amounts of cash from its bank account on 14 separate occasions and gave the money to campaign consultants and volunteers who put cash in envelopes that were disbursed to canvassers, frequently in amounts well in excess of $100,” agency lawyers wrote. “Of the $344,496 paid to canvassers, the committee made at least 600 payments, totaling $121,965, which exceeded the petty cash limit of $100 per person.”

Campaigns are supposed to document their expenditures. Understandably, election authorities take a dim view of candidates handing out fistfuls of bills to anyone who can hold a sign and calling it all petty cash.

Hudson River safari: Teredos and gribbles

New York Magazine surveys the lower Hudson River:

2. Teredos and Gribbles

Two kinds of hungry pests gnaw away at the pilings that hold up structures like the FDR Drive, the U.N. school on East 25th Street, and the Con Ed plant at 14th. Teredos, which start life looking like tiny clams, grow up to be worms “as big around as your thumb, and nearly four feet long, with little triangular teeth,” says commercial diver Lenny Speregen. Like underwater termites, they devour wood. And Limnoria tripunctata, a.k.a. “gribbles,” are bugs about the size of a pencil dot that look like tiny armadillos, and eat not only wood but also concrete. Speregen says he’s seen fifteen-inch-diameter columns that have been gnawed down, hourglass style, to three inches. The city has tried jacketing pilings in heavy plastic to keep the critters out, but it hasn’t worked well: Floating ice tears up the jackets in winter. “I never said this wasn’t a war,” says Speregen.