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British Public & Parliament Take on Tabloid News

British newspapers pounced Thursday on new reports of clandestine phone hacking by the News of the World tabloid, reportedly including the voice mail messages of relatives of fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. One newspaper said the police planned to make arrests soon.

The developments came a day after Britain’s Parliament on Wednesday collectively turned on Rupert Murdoch, the head of the News Corporation, which owns The News of the World, and the tabloid culture he represents, using a debate about the widening phone hacking scandal to denounce reporting tactics by newspapers once seen as too politically influential to challenge.

It appears the use of phone-hacking by the Sun and News of the World, first uncovered in 2007, has grown since.  British public opinion drew the line at revelations by The Guardian that Murdoch employees hacked the family phone of a teenage abduction/murder victim and perhaps others, including innocents killed in Britain’s 20005 subway bombing by terrorists.

Other accusations against News reporters are paying police officers for information and – the most bizarre – lending two murder suspects a News truck to spy on the chief detective in the case.

The significance of conservatives as well as liberals denouncing the tactics of Mr. Murdock’s operations is great.  Murdock has supported conservative politics and causes his entire life.  James Cameron tapped a former editor of the News as his spokesman after taking over as Prime Minister a year ago.  Yet even conservatives used harsh language against Mr. Murdock’s outrageous hubris and influence.   One conservative MP,  Zac Goldsmith, had these words .

“There is nothing noble in what these newspapers have been doing,” he said. “Rupert Murdoch is clearly a very, very talented businessman — he’s possibly even a genius — but his organization has grown too powerful and has abused that power. It has systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament, to our shame.”

The more serious criticism of Murdoch’s media empire in the US, particularly Fox News and The New York Post, has been their sensationalism and looseness with facts.  What effect the British investigations and impending arrests of  News reporters and agents will have on Murdoch’s business holdings long-term is not known.  Some in Parliament, however, are calling for Britain to block his next grand purchase of Sky Pay-TV.

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De Tocqueville Betrayed

The media coverage and attention-grabbing shenanigans of the O.J. Simpson trial almost twenty years ago look tame by today’s standards.  America needs a backlash against overindulgent, superficial, self-satisfying media personalities who pass themselves off as ‘journalists’ and claim they deliver ‘what the viewers/readers want.’   In the past, the NYTimes own reporters may have themselves come upon the inconsistencies in the case instead of just reporting six weeks later what the AG’s office discovered.  The excuse that ‘we give people what they want’ just doesn’t wash it anymore.  Commodus, the most infamous of late Roman dictators, gave his people what they ‘wanted’ also: gladiator and human-against-wild beast shows reduced Roman culture to venal, gross distractions while he whittled away the Empire’s defense.

The most serious result of the NY AG’s office inept handling of the DSK will no doubt be its effects on women’s willingness to report rape and their subsequent ability to get over the trauma in one piece.  New York prosecutors are responsible for igniting a media circus around sex and power can set back progress made in the US to put strong anti-rape laws on the book and is of special concern to French women.

“I hope this is going to help the victims to speak,” Ms. Nini {French writer about girls and teens) said. “If D.S.K.,” the initials by which Mr. Strauss-Kahn is known here, “is really guilty, I think this affair {exposing the jerk} is going to help women,” she said. But if he is found not guilty, she said, “there is a risk that women will not be taken seriously anymore….others pointed to interviews with nine female politicians published May 31 in the daily Libération, under the headline, “Sick of the machos.” They described “incredibly gross jokes” in the National Assembly and feeling the need to wear trousers to make a speech.

The scathing remarks by the French about the ‘brutal’ intersection of media, criminal justice, power and publicity that drive these high-profile cases should give Americans a different type of pause.

 

In an editorial this weekend, Le Monde wrote that “the least one can say is that the vagaries of the American procedure” had “condemned Dominique Strauss-Kahn before even the start of a serious inquiry.” Criticizing the “media-judicial machine,” the paper said the costs to Mr. Strauss-Kahn were heavy, including the loss of his job and his political future. The paper said that with the American system of an elected prosecutor dependent on the voters and the way it functions with the press, with police leaks and “terrible photos illegally transmitted to the press and then also illegally reproduced by certain newspapers — everything was done to place Mr. Strauss-Kahn in a situation of extreme weakness before even the beginning of an inquiry.”

This belies the great 19th-century Frenchman and political philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville, who definitively captured the American psyche in his famed book, “Democracy in America.”  After declaring his admiration of the ‘most democratic country in the world’ and his faith in the down-to-earth, equitable spirit of the American people over 150 years ago, he’s turning over in his grave today.

Noëlle Lenoir, a former European affairs minister, said many French felt insulted. “People were shocked by the media circus,” she said. “They thought the prosecution was making common cause with the tabloids. So there is a bit of revenge for what is seen as very anti-French behavior.”

 

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DSK High Speed Judgement

In a shocking front-page story, the New York Times announces that the prosecution of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the World Bank, not to mention French Presidential candidate, for rape of a hotel maid is falling apart.

Although forensic tests found unambiguous evidence of a sexual encounter between Mr. Strauss-Kahn and the woman, prosecutors now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.

Since her initial allegation on May 14, the accuser has repeatedly lied, one of the law enforcement officials said.

According to the two officials, the woman had a phone conversation with an incarcerated man within a day of her encounter with Mr. Strauss-Kahn in which she discussed the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him. The conversation was recorded.

That man, the investigators learned, had been arrested on charges of possessing 400 pounds of marijuana. He is among a number of individuals who made multiple cash deposits, totaling around $100,000, into the woman’s bank account over the last two years. The deposits were made in Arizona, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania

At the time heralded as hero for swift police work, the New York District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., is now in big trouble over the arrest.  Prosecutors not only rushed to judgement, they acted as if the case were a slam dunk, thus giving very little ‘reason’ for the media to do its job, take a step back and investigate further. In a high-profile case, that means judgement and punishment by public opinion.  What actually happened in that hotel room is not known.

Prosecutorial overzealousness like this has, of course, the most profound consequences for Mr. Strauss-Kahn, whose career has been destroyed.  But it raises more far-reaching questions about police work and justice:  these high-profile rape charges that turn out to be false make it much more difficult for real victims of rape to come forward and be believed, despite progress tightening the laws on the books.

Welcome to reality.  Back to the same clichéd truth: if a rush to judgement by prosecuters can ruin this guy’s life, what happens to a ‘nobody’ defendant exposed to a sloppy investigation ?  The DSK indictment was based on testimony from the police that the accuser was believable.  It used to be that rape victims weren’t believed.  No matter what went on in the hotel, I hope the pendulum hasn’t swung so far that men accused of rape are assumed guilty from the get-go.

 

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America in Decline

“The Decline of America” is a hot topic this summer.  Soul-searchers ask how and when American culture degenerated to a point where 24/7 media coverage of Rep. Weiner’s puerile self-indulgence is tolerated.   To many, it exemplifies the embarrassing and peculiarly American fetish around politics, personality and sex.  Why Weiner’s antics triggered comparisons to the decadence of ancient Rome, when Sarah Palin’s rise to VP candidate didn’t, is beyond me.

A few musings first published in The Week:

America in 2011 is Rome in 200AD or Britain on the eve of the first world war: an empire at the zenith of its power but with cracks beginning to show. – Larry Elliot, Economics Editor, The Guardian

Rome in the first two centuries A.D. faced a yawning gulf between rich and poor. The mighty empire built on tribute reached its geographic limits. Its economy created few exportable goods. Slaves acquired by conquest built most of its bridges, roads and aqueducts and took jobs in farming, mining and construction. As this cheaper labor replaced Roman citizens, idle, unemployed, hungry people filled the capital. – Alice Schroeder, Bloomberg News

Historians, for decades to come, will be unfoldingly horrified and appalled at the Bush administration’s alternating recklessness and indifference; levels that make James Buchanan, by comparison, look like a Lincoln. – P.M. Carpenter

Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008. – Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast

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I for one believe the publication of People Magazine by Time Inc.in 1975 signaled America’s cultural decline.  It was a brilliant business move.  The magazine captured the mood of a nation turning inward and craving distraction after the divisive debates of Vietnam and Watergate.  People validated a weird, collective self-absorption (the ‘me generation’) sweeping the country and set in motion the triumph of Personality over ideas, culture, politics, even religion and morals.  Added bonus: if readers were dissatisfied with their own lives, they could live vicariously through others.

Glorification of the individual, the personality, the ‘self’ dove-tailed nicely with the heightened ethics of greed and ruthlessness marking a major shift on Wall Street and in the economy  during the ’80s.  Captured brilliantly in the best-seller “Barbarians at the Gate”, the creation of wealth was moving away from production and building towards finance,  money off of money.  Financier replaced industrialist.  Carl Ichan, Michael Milkin and Henry Kravitz were Big Personalities,  innovators for using debt to finance corporate take-overs. Factories closed.  Dynasty and J.R. Ewing dominated TV.  Wall Street was a block- buster movie.  Conspicuous consumption ruled.  Kids killed for a pair of high-end sneakers.  Coke became drug of choice for the elite while the crack epidemic underwrote crime and urban decay.  Steel mills closed. Textiles moved overseas.  Auto makers shed thousands of jobs.  But an unending parade of Personalities could take your mind off things.

Personality and greed drive our culture even more today.  Conservatives, after all, have the Biggest and Baddest Personalities. The  People Magazine credo reached its apex with Sarah Palin’s 2008 candidacy. Finally, a Big Personality broke through the glass ceiling, overcoming ideas and deliberation, substituting the colorful background bio for lengthy (boring) C.V. Personalities in sports get nine lives in addition to multiple million dollar contracts.  Personalities in news are the news.  And once they become ‘the news’, they’re qualified to write books that become best-sellers.  Governance is a thing of the past: too many Personalities vying for power.  Big Personalities in finance try to control theirs: greed sells better under the radar screen.

Poor Representative Weiner.  His penis bulge was really minor after the likes of Clinton, Spitzer and Newt.  He  never started a needless war under false claims of WMD, never tortured a soul.  On the contrary, he was on the road to becoming the Biggest Personality in the Democratic party.  The 2012 nomination for  Vice-President seemed just around the corner!

Weiner did ace one part of last week’s ordeal  Whenever the Big Personality falls, he or she must confess and take full responsibility for the offending actions.  Confessional exposure for the sake of confession is one of the highest virtues one can exhibit in America today and the best chance for a fee pass on the misdeed.  The public forgets as soon as it forgives.

 

 

 

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Are Dems Discovering how to Campaign?

The Atlantic has a good article on why the Democrats should campaign on a successful bank bail-out.  Finally, someone is thinking.  No matter how much hatred Americans have for that bailout, the fact is that it save huge number of jobs in the financial industry, including secretaries, administrative personnel, back-room technicians and other ‘main street’  jobs distinct from high rollers on Wall Street.  One of the worst ‘sins’ of the Obama communications strategy was letting conservatives talk about the bail-outs as costing ‘trillions’ of dollars.  It’s now made $157 million but was fully paid back months ago.

Not only that, but contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that Republicans voted for the bail-out under President Bush, the truth is more complicated. First, Republicans voted against it, the market dropped 700 points overnight, then they voted for it.  But it was not Paulson under Bush but Geithner under Obama who came up with a bail-out plan that had a chance of being paid back.  Remember when Geithner was the bette noire of both parties first for his lousy testimony before Congress in March 2009 that looked like he had no plan at all and second for the extended amount of time it took to work out the details?  To think:  that was all just two years ago!

First, it’s kind of puzzling that Democrats are campaigning on the success of the auto bailout — and not the bank bailout. In fact, taxpayers fared far better through their “investment” in the banking industry than they did in the auto industry. As of the Treasury’s March bailout program update (.pdf), the auto bailout is expected to cost taxpayers $15 billion. Meanwhile, the non-housing-related financial industry bailout is expected to provide the government with a net gain of $157 billion. Obviously, the taxpayers were far better off rescuing the banks than they were rescuing out the auto companies.

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Anatomy of Obama-Netanyahu Political-Media Event

Well, now it’s clear.  Not only did President Obama address the AIPAC (American-Israeli Political Action Council) national conference with words almost identical to his Middle East speech last Thursday night, he received repeated applause.  Among other things, Mr. Obama reiterated the formula ‘1967 plus swaps’ from Cairo.2.  And astonishingly, after rebuking the President days before,  PM Netanyanu was quoting his authority:

“Now, the precise delineation of those borders must be negotiated.  We’ll be generous about the size of the future Palestinian state.  But as President Obama said, the border will be different than the one that existed on June 4th, 1967.  Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967.”(Emphasis added)

What is going on?  For four days, Mr. Netanyahu went out of his way pointing a finger at Mr. Obama’s Cairo.2 formulation.  Now he’s quoting  it!  I didn’t see any news reports that Mr. Netanyah apologized for misrepresenting the President’s remarks from the time he arrived until his speech to Congress.

President Obama was gracious in telling AIPAC attendees that his remarks were “misrepresented several times.”   Words diplomatically chosen:  Obama’s remarks were misrepresented, they were not misunderstood.  If they had been misunderstood the two leaders would have clarified their respective stands during a two-hour meeting the next day. Instead, the meme that President Obama had thrown Israel ‘under the bus’  became established media truth and was milked for every ounce of political blood it could draw.

Conservative media and politicians outdid themselves in whipping up false debate about what Obama never said, and the so-called East Coast ‘liberal’ press was not better.

There’s simply no excuse: not one major reporter or commenter thought or had the guts to interrupt another corrupt feeding frenzy and say:

“I think Mr. Netanyahu made a mistake here.  We are contacting Netanyahu’s press secretary now to clarify exactly why Mr. Netanyahu is interpreting the President’s remarks in a way seeming at odds with the record.  We’ll return with the Israeli response asap…….Meanwhile, in other news……”

The politics on display over the past week are hardly new. The PM stayed far away from real issues for which he had no answer, and avoided ones like settlements on which Israel is most vulnerable.  To fill the space, Mr. Netanyahu blew up the 1967 non-issue with symbolic importance and divisive meaning.  Mr. Netanyahu wanted and created a controversy, giving the signal to his conservative partisans in the US, now smelling blood, to go on attack

Dissecting Mr. Netanyahu’s speech to a Joint Session of Congress confirms this scenario.  The speech said nothing original, creative or in any way profound.

Most telling?  The PM failed to respond to President Obama’s challenge to AIPAC that the time for peace is running out because 1) demographic changes will mean Israel losing either its Jewish or democratic nature in the near future; 2) the changes in Arab states will put more pressure on Israel because it can no longer depend on the Mubaraks of the region suppressing a popular youth movement impatient for a Palestinian state; 3) for better or worse, the Palestinians have world opinion on their side.

What is Israel going to do?  I’d like to know. So would a lot of others. Does Netanyahu disbelieve challenges cited by President Obama? Is he in denial?  Is he racing head strong into his own self-imposed prophesy?

Sad to say it took the President of the United States to raise the level of discussion over Israel’s future by defining the strategic issues facing it.  The Israeli PM seemed content with a dog-fight.

 

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Poll Shows Arab/Muslim States’ Dim View of US

The latest Pew Research Center Report on how people in Arab and Muslim states see the US and President Obama was released yesterday.  It’s not pretty:

 

With the exception of Indonesia, Obama remains unpopular in the Muslim nations polled, and most disapprove of the way he has handled calls for political change roiling the Middle East. Moreover, many of the concerns that have driven animosity toward the U.S. in recent years are still present — a perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally, opposition to the war on terror, and fears of America as a military threat. And in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan, most say their own governments cooperate too much with the U.S.

 

The poll was conducted before the death of Bin Laden and the Hamas-Fatah deal.  Both would likely drive up unfavorable and disapproval categories.  How long can the US afford to have favorable ratings below 10% across the Muslim world and confidence in Obama above 50% only in Indonesia and only 10% in Turkey. Obama seems strangely out of touch with Arab and Muslim nations.  Western, Arab and Muslim elites were taken by surprise when the wave of Middle East and North African democracy movements broke out in Tunisia.  But public disgust with ossified, corrupt governments had been simmering for decades.  Pew poll numbers on Arab and Islamic countries’ views of America began plummeting a year ago.  It would be condescending for the Administration to think that the election of the first African-American President and a great speech two years ago would move the favorable needle up without the concrete follow-up on Middle East peace and troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

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Strauss-Kahn: Today’s Quote

This sums the whole thing up in a nutshell: (no pun intended)

Austria’s finance minister Maria Fekter said Mr. Strauss-Kahn should consider how his actions are affecting the IMF. “As far as the IMF is concerned, Mr. Strauss-Kahn needs to decide himself how to act in order to not inflict any damage on the institution,”  - Wall Street Journal

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