Anonymous cowards are buying the 2010 election

This article was originally published on Salon on October 18, 2010.

It’s beginning to penetrate the public consciousness that the 2010 elections are being purchased, mostly for Republicans, by a shadowy group of wealthy cowards. These anonymous buyers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into attack ads, mostly against Democrats, via organizations that launder their money into an increasingly corrupt political system.

There’s not much anyone can do about it during this election cycle. The response time of the people being attacked has been slow, at best, while journalists have been in typical form, discovering the problem too late to matter. The campaign season is essentially over, and what was plainly going to be a big Republican gain could well become a rout, no small thanks to the opinion launderers and their paymasters.

But unless we want our nation to be entirely governed by puppets, on strings wielded by people who stay entirely in the shadows, we’ll need to find a way to put a hard stop to this — or force the anonymous cowards into the open where we can learn who’s doing the manipulating.

My short-term, personal response to the attack ads, and the one I hope you’re adopting (as I suggested several weeks ago) has been to treat them exactly the way I treat anonymous comments on news sites and blogs: Someone who is so cowardly that he attacks others anonymously doesn’t just deserve to be ignored; he invites active disbelief. Even the political organizations that do disclose their donors rarely do so in a timely way, so I’ve come to treat all attack ads as lies.

Maybe Congress will act, but probably not. The political class is most culpable in this growing offense against our republic’s bedrock, fair elections. A bill in Congress, called the DISCLOSE Act, has languisheddue to the opposition of Senate Republicans who say they’ll filibuster against it, and who have tacit collaboration from Democrats — always hypocritical on these issues, but never mind that — who never actually force Republicans to actually filibuster, that is, stand up and talk for hours or days on end.

Journalists, by and large, are nowhere near up to the task of sorting out truth from lies in this media avalanche, and they barely care enough even to attempt to learn who’s behind the onslaught. A few news organizations have devoted some resources to the issue during the past few weeks, such as the New York Times, NPR and Rachel Maddow’s teamat MSNBC. Naturally, there’s been near-silence from the media companies profiting the most from the lies, namely the local TV and radio stations that have been absolutely raking in cash this summer and fall.

The American public knows something is wrong. Several new polls showa deep unease with a system that allows anonymous but wealthy cowards to pollute the airwaves with their lies and deceptions. But if people don’t have a clear sense of how vast this pollution has become, it’s because they haven’t been given the data.

One way we could begin to get a grip on the size of the spending at local levels — apart from anecdotal guesswork — is to look at what broadcasters are raking in from the opinion launderers. Every local station is required by federal law to keep logs of political ad spending. NPR looked at stations in Pittsburgh last week, and in an unsurprising finding, reported major spending on behalf of Republicans by shadowy groups. From the show’s transcript:

PETER: So the groups are filing their paperwork with stations but they’re not taking it very seriously.

Some answer a few questions, most leave the important lines blank. It’s an indication that TV stations can’t act as a watchdog of these groups.

ANDREA: This is where the trail goes cold. We called some of the groups behind these ads. They either said they were busy, they’re complying with the law, or they didn’t call us back at all.

And they don’t have to. For most of these groups there’s almost nothing required in terms of donor disclosure. They can keep their funding sources comfortably hidden.

But from sifting through the public files at two Pittsburgh TV stations we did learn a few things.

PETER: We learned that these groups are spending amounts of money that were unimaginable just a few years ago. One group can easily spend $100,000 or more at one station, in a few weeks.

Multiply that by four or five local stations in each area, and five or six groups spending at that level, and the amount of money flowing from secret sources to fund attack ads across the nation is easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But how can we, as a nation, get the actual number? What we need is a compilation of every station’s logs. And while no single media organization could possibly do such a project on its own, and it’s obvious that local media outlets aren’t doing it themselves, there are ways to pull this data together — and the best way is to crowdsource it.

If I could be media czar for a day, I’d get every newspaper behind this project:

  • The first step would be, with the public’s help, to visit every station, get a copy of every log of political advertising, and then compile numbers at local, state and federal levels.
  • The next step would be to see who’s benefiting from the spending, i.e. who’s not being attacked, and disclose that.
  • Then, see if the spenders are following the law in how they describe what they’re doing with the money; as NPR observed, the gaps in the forms showed that the spenders were blatantly flouting even the minimal disclosure requirements.
  • Then get every media outlet that cared to trumpet the results for their own regions and the nation.

That’s the easy part, unfortunately. Learning how much is being spent, and on whose behalf, won’t uncover the names and businesses of the anonymous cowards who are pouring so much cash into buying a new Congress. But perhaps, just perhaps, wider understanding of the vastness of this enterprise would generate sufficient public outrage to force some changes later on.

It’s getting harder to be optimistic about our future. I fear that the corruption of the public sphere has become so overwhelming, and the public’s helpless acceptance such a dead weight for reform, that no amount of disclosure will help.

But if we don’t even try, we’re lost.

Hewlett Packard keeps digging its hole

This article was originally published on Salon on August 16, 2010.

HP has a lot more questions to answer about CEO Mark Hurd’s mysterious departure

I have no idea whether the Wall Street Journal’s lurid story today about Mark Hurd’s forced departure from Hewlett Packard is believable. It’s impossible to judge because the paper relies so thoroughly on unnamed sources who are said to be, in the latest journo-lingo that purports to explain a grant of anonymity, “familiar with the situation.”

But what we do know is this: HP hasn’t come close to making sense about Hurd’s resignation, which was demanded by the board several weeks ago. There’s clearly a scandal, but what is it, exactly?

When a journalist as smart as the New York Times’ Joe Nocera is reduced to sheer speculation — he believes the board canned Hurd essentially because they and the employees had come to despise the guy — you know that the situation has spun wildly out of bounds.

I don’t buy Nocera’s take for one main reason. The board totally enabled Hurd to become one of the greedier and nastier CEOs of recent times. He is clearly a talented man, but his record at HP wasn’t entirely the triumph that his acolytes in the business press trumpted. His tenure featuredmega-slashing of people, and mega-enriching of himself and his insider cronies.

I’m as lost as everyone else when it comes to understanding precisely what, if anything, transpired between Hurd and Jodie Fisher. She’s the actor who was, apparently, being paid $5,000 a pop to be a hostess at HP events.

I say “apparently” because, like everyone else except the insiders who do know, I’m not sure what happened. HP’s stonewalling on just about everything has been epic, and in particular the company hasn’t come close to clean about the precise nature of their relationship.

One question that has a plain answer is this one: What happened to the HP of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the men who built a company that held human beings — and their humanity and communities — as essential to the mission as anything the people created?

What happened was this: It was destroyed by market and political conditions that encouraged boards and CEOs to exemplify the worst of American capitalism.

HP’s board has dug itself a deep hole, and it keeps digging. I take some comfort in knowing that Marc Andreessen is becoming a more visible board member, because I have trouble believing he’s comfortable with what’s going on at HP. I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but I find myself hoping he’s leading a board uprising. Someone needs to do it. Quickly.

Rand Paul’s anonymous accuser

This article was originally published on Salon on August 10, 2010.

Without evidence, the “kidnapping” tale is an example of what media consumers should automatically disbelieve


So Rand Paul felt obliged to deny an accusation that he kidnapped a Baylor University swim teammate and forced her to smoke dope.

I believe him. I believed him before he said he didn’t do it. (Update: And it turns out that no such thing happened, even according to the still-anonymous source for this story. See update below.)

Why? Because the accusation is about something that allegedly happened some 27 years ago, and his accuser is staying anonymous. Sadly, GQ magazine — which published an otherwise interesting (and better-sourced) account of Paul’s, uh, socially active college years — went with this tale.

Even more sadly, the state of American media is such that the accusation has made its way into the mainstream. Bloggers and traditional journalists alike have quoted the GQ piece and given it credence it absolutely hasn’t earned. Anonymous sources deserve no credibility unless they provide evidence.

I hope Paul loses in November, because I find his politics odious in many ways. But I hope this story doesn’t sway anyone.

UPDATE: So, according to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, the accuser, who still won’t give her name, says the GQ piece was wrong in some vital ways. Namely, it wasn’t a forced abduction; she was essentially role-playing; no one forced her to take drugs; and the people involved were friends. In other words, however weird (and there’s definitely some odd behavior here) the situation may have been, it wascollege party-style weirdness, and nothing resembling the alleged criminality we’ve been hearing about.

Several comments have raised the appropriate question of whether what happened in college almost three decades ago is relevant to someone’s fitness for office today. A kidnapping, if it happened, would be relevant, no doubt. It didn’t happen.

And the other hijinks the GQ story discusses, as well as the anonymous woman’s latest account (the truth of which I still don’t take for granted)? Not relevant in the slightest, at least in any sense of disqualifying someone for public office, given how long ago this was and how we all change as we get older. If anything — given that practically everyone I liked in college was “lewd, crude and grossly sacreligious” (characteristics attributed to the group he apparently joined at Baylor) — they tend to make Paul sound more interesting.

Finally, some of the comments on this item reflect a disturbing reality. Many folks want to believe the worst about Paul, and don’t care if there’s any real evidence. I hope they’ll consider how they’d feel if someone made this kind of accusation against them or someone they like.

America’s good, subservient press

This article was originally published on Salon on July 4, 2010.

On Independence Day, noting that the truly independent American journalists don’t work for big organizations

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa — Journalists tend to take themselves too seriously, and their craft not seriously enough. So it is apt that some famous and obscure quotations and aphorisms about the value and function of a free press adorn the tiled walls of the restrooms at Rhodes University’s African Media Matrix — the building that houses what is widely considered the continent’s top journalism school.

One of those quotes is from Nelson Mandela, spoken in 2002, and it feels dismayingly correct today:

“A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press.”

In the wake of a major journalistic scandal in the United States, broken open in the last week, I have to say that America’s establishment press has never been technically better, but never more pathetically subservient. My hopes increasingly ride on an often bad free press that is getting better all the time.

Let me also say, upfront, that there are honorable exceptions in the top ranks of America’s major media organizations. But in what may well be seen someday as a seminal event in U.S. media history, senior people at the two newspapers widely considered to offer the most comprenensive political coverage have admitted — and, God help us, defended — their technically good subservience to the American government.

Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has discussed in detail the truly disheartening response to a Harvard study showing that the Washington Post and New York Times skewed their coverage of America’s post-9/11 torture policy, using the Bush administration’s newspeak language — “harsh interrogation techniques” was a favorite — instead of plain old “torture,” the word they’d previously used to describe the same acts.

And then, when asked why, top editors and spokespeople at both papers effectively said that once the Bush administration and Republican allies had pushed for the new language, the news organizations were duty-bound to use it, too, or else be seen as slanting the news.

That the news organizations had changed their language was itself disgraceful. That they then compounded the damage, with a defense that was almost the definition of a subservient press, was heartbreaking.

But George Orwell was rolling in his grave — perhaps with joy that he’s been proved so right, but also pure despair.


I’m participating at a pair of conferences in South Africa this week,Highway Africa and the World Journalism Education Congress. (Some of the travel costs for me and a companion have been covered by theconference sponsors.) It’s my fourth time at Highway Africa, a gathering that brings together many of Africa’s most forward-looking journalists for conversations, among other things, about the way technology is enabling the future.

Africa is a huge and diverse place, and the state of journalistic freedom reflects the differences: nil to relatively robust. Guy Berger, head of the Rhodes University journalism program (and someone who’s become a friend), says there’s more and more bad free press, and a positive trajectory in terms of quality.

But he shows me a bulletin board, the old-fashioned analog kind, on which clippings describe the ongoing struggles for freedom in many places; jailings, beatings and assassinations are a growing reality for journalists around the world — the victims typically  people who are trying to shine a light on what their governments or other powerful interests are doing.

On my first trip to Africa in 2001, I was with a group of journalists who visited nearby Zambia to offer Internet workshops to media people who were just getting wind of the potential in the emerging networks. We were scheduled to meet Fred M’membe, editor of the Post, an independent newspaper there, but he was in court defending himself against government pressure. Now he is in prison.

I told the journalists I met then, and at the two other Highway Africa conferences where I’ve spoken, that I feel great humility in their presence. Like others around the world who risk their liberty, and sometimes their life, for their work, they remind us all of why telling the truth to and about the rich and powerful is so important.


Today is Independence Day in the United States. I’m proud of what we have done so right in America, and believe, more than ever, in the ideals of our nation. For me, it’s America, right and wrong. We do get it wrong, horribly so on occasion, but we have had the institutions in place to correct ourselves time and again.

One of those institutions is the press. When it does its job.

I’m not naive about the long-standing flaws of American journalism. It’s never been as great as our mythology. But it has often shone when the chips were down.

They are today. Never have we needed truly independent journalism institutions — which despite great progress in the developement of online media still convey most of what we call “news” to most of the people — more than we do now.

The honorable exceptions aside, they are failing. And they’re failing arrogantly, insisting that they are doing their jobs well when the evidence is so obviously to the contrary.

I have less and less confidence that the technically excellent journocrats who work in the newsrooms of most major media organizations, especially the ones that have become so embedded in the political and economic power structures, will ever recover their independence.

Bloggers and other entrants in the newer media were barely on the radar in 2002, but I suspect Mandela would agree that some of the “bad free press” today comes from their ranks. I actually believe some of the best good journalism is coming from the new media, but we have to acknowledge that most online conversations don’t hit the high points of our best journalistic principles.

So, yes, my hopes increasingly are with the free-for-all — call it the cacophony or whatever you want — that may frequently be bad but which is getting better. I have absolute confidence that people who join this new journalistic ecosystem for the right reasons, and who do it badly, can learn to be good, because they can learn why it matters to do things in a trustworthy way.

The New York Times and Washington Post have done wonderful work through their modern existence. But their failures are so profound in recent years that it’s hard to maintain any confidence in them.

So for all of the excellence they’ve fostered, the editors at these famous institutions who refused to call torture what it was — bowing to the bogus and odious idea that channeling partisan propaganda was serving their readers — harmed their organizations with those cowardly word games.

And when they defended their acts of cowardice and dismissed criticism as tendentious, they went beyond harm. Their pride in subservience was a disgrace.

What, I wonder, does Independence Day mean to them?

(Updated to fix originally misguided Orwell reference.)

Daily Kos gets transparency in media right

This article was originally published on Salon on June 30, 2010.

The political website, discovering serious problems with its pollster, comes excruciatingly clean with its audience

Here’s how Markos Moulitsas started a post yesterday at the Daily Kos:

I have just published a report by three statistics wizards showing, quite convincingly, that the weekly Research 2000 State of the Nation poll we ran the past year and a half was likely bunk.

If there’s a Mother of All Corrections, this comes pretty close. When the proprietor of a well-known and widely followed media organization brings something this awful to the attention of his audience, and in such a forceful and prominent way, he’s doing something fairly rare — and noteworthy.

My survey research and statistics skills aren’t strong enough to vouch for what the statistics wizards came up with, but the redoubtable Nate Silver is doing just that. In short, there is a huge problem — and that’s the best possible construction — in this data.

The Atlantic’s Max Fisher has an excellent aggregation about the fighting, legal and otherwise, surrounding this debacle. Lots of it, as you’d expect, is purely political, unsurprising given the Daily Kos mission. I suspect this will be a case study worthy of a masters thesis.

I cannot imagine a traditional media organization — and more than a few have used this pollster — showing the same level of transparency that Markos has done. (Speaking of transparency, I should note that Markos is a longtime friendly acquaintance.) I can only imagine how he must have felt when he learned of the problems with the polling.

It’s what he did next that matters here: He gathered facts and then issued, in excruciating detail, a report to his readers.

Let’s be clear on one thing: If, in fact, Daily Kos has been running fraudulent polls the past several years, the site has taken a credibility hit, a serious one. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to delete the site from my browser bookmarks or RSS feeds, and the main reason I won’t do so is that the site is being so up-front about what happened.

Media organizations have traditionally been among the most opaque of institutions. Trust us or don’t, they’ve said in the past — and what they’ve meant was, you can take what we say as The Truth. That’s no longer good enough, not that it ever was, and the smarter ones are opening up, though the notable examples tend to be exceptions, not the rule.

The more honest we are about our errors, and we all make them, the more we may feel we’re letting people assume that what we do is flawed. Well, in journalism and other fast-moving media, what we do often isflawed. The best we can do is to try hard to follow the other principles of journalism that include accuracy and thoroughness, and then own up, fast, when we get it wrong.

For those of us creating media, genuine transparency will lead audiences to believe us less. That’s fine, because healthy audience skepticism is the first principle of smart media consumption.

But transparency will also lead people to trust us more. That’s not a paradox.

Salon and Me

I’ve been a fan of Salon since the day it started, and a paying subscriber as long as the company has offered that option. If you visit Salon often, you already know why.

So I’m delighted to be bringing some of my blogging there, including many of the items I’d normally be posting here. My arrangement with Salon gives them exclusive access for one week to new posts, after which they’ll appear here — as always, under a Creative Commons license from this site.

Here’s my first post.

NYT Columnist Sees Some Poisoned Apples, But is He Missing Nearby Ones?

David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, took critical note this week of arrogant behavior at Apple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the myopia that pervades his organization about its own dealings with Apple, he missed a crucial part of the story.

Carr, whom I like and respect enormously, gets so much right. He connects some dots that his and other news organizations, particularly Wired, had been creating in their journalism — and not just about the outrageous invasion of a journalist’s home, plus the confiscation of his computing gear, to further an almost certainly Apple-inspired investigation. This, you’ll recall, occurred after an employee lost an iPhone prototype, which was then purchased by Gawker in the process of doing a much talked-about article.

(Whether Gawker Media was right or wrong to pay for the device isn’t the topic here; I don’t have to like the way they did their journalism to vehemently object to the abuses by the authorities, who should have gotten a subpoena instead of a search warrant; their actions were an attack on journalism, a flagrant one.)

The dots Carr connects amount to what anyone who’s paid attention to Apple has known for years: Apple makes great gadgets and software, but it is secretive, manipulative and capricious in the way it deals with everyone outside its high walls — and it plainly aims to exert absolute control over what it aims to make the world’s next major computing and communications platform.

Communications means media. Carr notices, at one point, that Apple is becoming a media company as he cites Apple’s dictatorial handling of the ecosystem that uses the iPhone operating system, which controls the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

Carr can’t find a pattern in the way Apple decides which content-based apps get approved and rejected. I can: It’s a pattern of a single company making all the decisions. Carr does say it makes him “queasy” and notes that it’s part of a closed-ecosystem method Apple has chosen for its newer devices. He writes:

Apple’s behavior and choices in the Gizmodo affair threaten to interrupt the séance between the company and an adoring press, who have looked past all the frantic secrecy and reverently stared in wonder at what was eventually revealed behind the curtain.

The media’s crush on Apple has always been an unrequited love affair. The company has a few familiars in the press whom it favors, but Apple has “no comment” programmed on a macro key. The company has unsuccessfully sued bloggers who, it believed, had punctured its veil of secrecy, and important tech news organizations like Wired have been shut out as a result of coverage deemed ill-mannered.

When I read that, I thought, Aha, now he’s going to address his own organization’s flagrant questions of integrity involving Apple — and look at an issue I and a number of others have raised about Apple and journalism. Namely: Why are news organizations, creating iPad apps at a rapid rate, throwing themselves into the arms of a company that unilaterally reserves the right to reject or remove the journalism from its platform if it doesn’t like what it sees.

Surely this would be worth raising an eyebrow? You won’t find a word in Carr’s column even wondering if journalism organizations are violating basic principles this way.

The questions are (or should be) more pointed in the specific case of the Times and its dealings with Apple. Their relationship looks so close on the surface that it gives the appearance of a cross-promotional campaign for each others’ products. Might it have been useful for Carr to ask his own bosses to address any of this? When I asked, they stonewalled until issuing a “no comment” to my specific questions. This was curious: Last summer, when Apple was similarly promoting the Times in its pre-release campaign for an iPhone model, a Times spokesperson specifically denied to the Nieman Journalism Lab that there was any business relationship, saying Apple had asked for permission, happily granted, to feature the news organization in its promotion. In that context, a “no comment” is at least an interesting shift in position. Maybe Carr could have asked if something had changed?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course, just like the other ones I’m asking about how far Carr’s column took these issues. I don’t really expect him to push his bosses as hard as I’m suggesting he might. He’s an employee, and employees of news organizations — institutions whose arrogance matches that of Wall Street banks — know just how far they can go, which isn’t very far, in asking of themselves that which they demand of others.

Cartoonists Show More Spine than Editors, Reporters


The New York Times, after noting that Apple reversed its arbitrary banning of an editorial cartoonist’s iPhone app, reports that an association representing cartoonists is lobbying for the company to change its rules for humorous, politically charged apps..

I think we need a cartoon for this. It would show the cartoonists storming the gates at Infinite Loop in Cupertino, with the editors and reporters at their newspapers nowhere in sight as they refuse, almost universally, to address the larger issue of turning over their journalism to a capricious owner of an ecosystem in which they have no control.

Maybe Mark Fiore could create it. He knows the issue intimately.

UPDATE: Or maybe not. As Molly Wood notes, Fiore “resubmitted his app, which is now ‘accepted.’ I wish he’d told Apple to shove off.” Me, too.

Washington Post and NPR: Yes, Apple Can Block Their iPad Journalism


A few days ago, following up on questions I’ve asked a number of other news organizations about their relationships with Apple, the Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro put a query to his bosses — and, unlike me with any traditional news company (including his), got an answer.

Here’s the operative quote from his story today, entitled “App rejected? There’s a rule for that” —

So, can Apple remove news organizations’ apps for their content? Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti wrote that “this is our understanding”; National Public Radio’s Danielle Deabler agreed but said NPR saw no evidence that Apple wanted to do such a thing. Publicists for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and USA Today declined to comment or did not reply to e-mails.

We now have confirmation from two of America’s most respected news organizations — the Post and NPR — that they willingly participate in a distribution/access ecosystem where the company that owns it can remove their journalism from that system for any reason it chooses.

I suspect that the spokeswomen for the Post and NPR have technically violated the terms of their companies’ developers agreements with Apple even by saying that much. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

Anyway, kudos to Pegoraro, who has shown more spine than his colleagues at other news organizations. From all appearances, they’re just hoping this will all go away. It won’t.

UPDATE: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism today in Austin, I asked three panelists — from NPR, the New York Times and the Guardian — about this issue. Only NPR’s Kinsey Wilson responded, and he was more forthright than I’ve heard anyone be from any media company so far.

The situation is “not ideal,” he acknowledged. No news organization, he assumes, has the individual leverage with Apple to insist on contract terms that should be standard for people who believe in their journalism.

NPR, based on Wilson’s other panel comments, is creating what sounds like a multi-platform strategy: creating a back-end system that can feed to any platform. All smart news organizations are trying to move this way.

Update: Why I’ve Sold My New York Times Co. Shares


Eleven days after I first raised the subject of the New York Times’ complicated relationship(s) with Apple (follow-up here), I’ve finally received an answer, of sorts. Sadly, the answer wasn’t to the questions I asked.

A PR person from the company, responding to one of several subsequent emails, wrote back today: “No, we are not going to comment.”

This stonewalling — this deliberate statement that the newspaper chooses to be opaque on matters that go to its editorial integrity — is disappointing, but unfortunately not entirely surprising. But it left me with no real choice on a decision I truly hate to make:

I’ve sold my small (300 shares) holding of New York Times Co. stock. I’ll be taking a loss on the transaction, but I’d never expected to make much money, if any, on my purchase in the first place; I bought NYT stock because I wanted to demonstrate my support of quality journalism.

For decades I’ve revered the New York Times. I still believe that it’s loaded with superb journalists. I hope it survives and thrives in a media environment that grows more challenging every day.

Journalism is in enough trouble as it is, and the Times’ challenges are truly daunting. Arrogant non-transparency about basic integrity only makes the situation worse. So I’ll put what money I have left from this already poor investment into something else.