Posts from July 26, 2004

‘Failures of imagination’

‘Failures of imagination’

: That key phrase of the 9/11 Commission‘s indictment of history keeps rolling around in my head like a bucket of loose nails. Failures of imagination.

What an absurd and hopeless charge it is. I finally realized that what this really says is that the commission could not come up with failures of fact that lead to the attacks. And so, instead, it trumped up this charge against both recent administrations and countless public servants: OK, they say, so it turns out you could not have known what these insane, evil, murdering religous fanatics would do to America but we say you should have imagined it — and then you should have protected us from this imagined act and because you did not stop this act you could have only imagined, you failed.

Not to be too flip about this, but such is the indictment every husband knows from every wife (or pick your familial relationship): You should have guessed what I wanted without my having to tell you. It is the perfect can’t-win vice grip.

And that is the position into which the 9/11 commission puts past — and now future — governments of this country. They set an absolutely unwinnable standard for victory in this war:

It’s not a war against terrorism, says the commission. OK, then what is it? It’s a war against Islamic fanatics, they say; you should go take out those fanatics, they urge. But beware drastic measures such as regime change. And don’t get too uppity and think about installing democracies amid hotbeds of tyranny. You should not invade Iraq and set up a democracy in the heart of the Middle East to set an example. Instead, they suggest, you should work through libraries. (And that is only a slightly unfair summary.) They demand decisiveness but, because they wanted to report to be unamimous, they bleached out all decisiveness from the report’s recommendations. Libraries! They could all get behind libraries. Invasion and regime change? Too controversial.

And then, when that doesn’t work and the next attack comes — the attack the commission vaguely warns will come so they can say we told you so — then they will accuse the administration — any administration — of not acting swiftly enough and strongly enough and with sufficient imagination.

It’s the can’t win conundrum. And it’s not terribly helpful.

Nonetheless, politicians and media commentators are falling over themselves to praise the unanimous report of the commission and urge immediate implementation of all its recommendations, whether decisive (and there are some) or namby-pamby (and there are many). Now I’m all for swift and decisive action against terrorism and Islamic extremism — all for it. But I do feel the need to urge just a moment to ask:

Did the 9/11 commission get it right?

Thank goodness, there are others asking that today. Willliam Safire in The Times frets:

With great fanfare, the 9/11 commission amplified that call for a super-spymaster. This rush to “reform” is stampeding otherwise sensible senators into writing a czarist bill to combine the spying techniques of secret surveillance with the law-enforcement power of the F.B.I., invading the unsuspected citizen’s privacy under the rubric of fighting terrorism.

With this fear-driven new groupthink spurred, booted and in the saddle, nobody at this convention stops to ask: Would John Kerry, if elected, be well served by a fixed-term, “cabinet level official” who does not serve, as other members of the cabinet do, “at the pleasure of the president”? What if, in some crisis about pre-emption, they disagreed – would the unelected official prevail? Who would really be in charge?

And suppose one person had budget authority over intelligence-gathering and evaluation as well as F.B.I. investigations – what would become of the rules of evidence that protect the innocent accused? What the czar wants, the czar gets – and one day he could just as easily be a John Ashcroft as a Lee Hamilton.

One looks in vain for a Democrat here in the Boston lovefest to break out of the groupthink enough to say: “Hold on. In the spirit of the 9/11 bestseller, let’s use our imagination to discern hidden dangers in unrestrained dot-connecting.” Won’t happen; in a time of fear, civil liberty butters no political parsnips.

And in the New York Post, Amir Taheri says this is a bureacratic solution because it is the product of bureaucratic thinking.

The commissioners have a politico-technocratic mindset. They are the products of a political culture that assumes that all problems have technical and bureaucratic solutions. Such solutions are standard: create a new layer of bureaucracy, and spend some more money. But that is certainly not going to put the fear of God in Osama bin Laden and his like.

The commission itself was a typical product of such a way of thinking. So it is not surprising that it came up with only two new proposals: one is to create a Cabinet post dealing with intelligence, a twin for the existing Homeland Security tsar. The other is a suggestion to spend money on improving the lives of disaffected youths in Arab and other Muslim countries. I am not kidding!

He goes on to say that, indeed, the Commission didn’t get it right.

The report assumes that there is a single, readily identifiable enemy. This is the routine way of political thinking, that took shape during the Cold War.

Anyone with knowledge of the Arab countries and the Muslim world in general would know that this is not the case.

The problem with the current War on Terror is that the democracies, and those Muslims who aspire for democracy, are faced with a multi-faceted threat that assumes numerous forms, from the burning of books to the cutting of throats….

The commission makes an even bigger mistake. By speaking of “political grievances” it tries to explain the Islamists within the parameters of classical logic. Having accused the administration of lack of imagination, the commission, is itself unable to imagine a conflict that is not political in the normal sense of the term.

Right. The commission says it’s not just about terrorism. It’s about Islamic extremism. But it’s more than that. It’s about democracy. It’s about modernity. It’s about civilization. But that’s going too far for a unanimous report. So it’s about libraries. Says Taheri:

The aims of the “enemy” in question, however, are not solely political.

He will not be happy even if, in the spirit of liberal generosity, you gave him half of your power and wealth. Nor would he settle for a total American withdrawal from the world. Nor would he be satisfied if you helped wipe Israel off the map.

This enemy’s conflict with the United States, and alongside it other democracies, not to mention those Muslims who also aspire after democracy, is not political but existential.

He wants to rule you because he thinks he is the holder of a “the highest form of truth.”

This enemy wants you, the whole world in fact, to convert to Islam because he believes the advent of Islam abrogated all other religions. Anyone who is not a Muslim is not a full human being.

And fighting that takes, well, imagination.

So, in the end, the real failure of imagination is not (just) past administration’s; the failure of imagination is the commission’s. The commission, in its unanimity, fails to adequately imagine the extent of the enemy and the means and weapons and resolve it will take to fight that enemy.

If we turn around and swiftly adopt this commission’s recommendations and think that we’re then safe, we have all suffered a failure of imagination.

Third prize is a week in Boston

Third prize is a week in Boston

: The Washington Post is running a contest for the best political blogs.



: Protobloggers Matt Welch and Tim Blair are blogging together for Reason.

Vox pop

Vox pop

: Technorati just launched with the latest from bloggers left and right (and I’m gratified to see that I’m both left and right).

Looks like a journalist, smells like a journalist…

Looks like a journalist, smells like a journalist…

: Tom Rosenstiel in today’s Boston Globe asks and answers the question, what is a journalist?

A journalist tries to tell the literal truth and get the facts right, does not pass along rumors, engages in verifying, and makes that verification process as transparent as possible.

A journalist’s goal is to inspire public discussion, not to help one side win or lose. One who tries to do the latter is an activist.

Neutrality is not a core principle of journalism. But the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.

A journalist’s loyalty to his or her audience, even above employer, is paramount.

This new medium shifts that a bit. Today, a journalist is part of his audience — so call it his public, instead — and anybody who reports a fact or pushes a question to get to the facts is engaging in journalism. I’m also not sure what the “literal truth” is and I will say that plenty of journalists today make a living passing on rumors (aka terror alerts). I’d say a journalist is one who communicates news and information. What do you say?

Major media merger

Major media merger
: CableNewser Brian Stelter has joined Media Bistro, renaming the blog TVNewser (to cover the nets, too). It’s the first of a group of media blogs Laurel Touby is starting to round out her media magnet. I’ve known about this for a few weeks but was sworn to silence (drat!). This brings together some smart folks who are doing great new things in media. Go take a look.

Reinventing the convention

Reinventing the convention

: The real story of this convention should be the death and reinvention of political conventions. I have some suggestions — no, I have a damned manifesto — for reinventing conventions from the bottom up.

It’s no news that no news will come from the Democratic National Convention this week — nevertheless, we apparently need 15,000 journalists and now a gaggle of bloggers to tell us nothing. This is why I decided not to go to the convention. (More on that in a minute.) It’s the unevent. It should not exist.

But then I thought about ways to rebuild the convention, to make them relevant and useful — and democratic — again:

1. Prove that you are the party that listens. Hold sessions — not panels, not speeches, not lectures, not platform meetings, but sessions on the BloggerCon model — with experts and citizens (and politicians listening and not speaking unless spoken to) brought together to have conversations about the issues and solutions that really matter to all of us: health care, education, taxes, defense, terrorism, the economy…

Of course, it won’t be a controlled message. That’s just the point. It’s about listening. It’s about having the conversation. If markets are conversations and news is a conversation then politics and government certainly should be a conversation. Democracy is a conversation. Thus Cluetrain meets McLuhan: The medium is the message and the message is, “We are the party that listens.”

2. Open the convention to the citizens. Just as the Democrats have opened the media tent to include not just every journalist alive but now also bloggers, so should they open the gates to citizens. By inviting nonpols and unconnected people to those sessions on issues, they would bring the conventions back to the people — which is precisely who the conventions are supposed to be about. These are supposed to be the one time in four years when the citizens have a voice in politics. But, of course, only pols and the connected can attend. And so the citizens resent the people behind the curtain. The only way to solve that is to invite the people behind the curtain, too.

3. Decentralize the convention. Take those sessions and webcast them and open up a backchannel to involve anyone and everyone who gives a damn anywhere in the country. Want to talk to every state? Then listen to every state.

4. Harness citizens. If you learned anything from Howard Dean, it should be that the people will move mountains for them if you involve them in the process. So all during convention week, hold MeetUps in Boston and across the country and call that the real convention of the real party.

Simple suggestions, really. You can still have your speeches. You can still fight over nominations in the odd chance it comes to that. But you can also listen to citizens, involve citizens, include the nation.

: UPDATE: Quoth Doc Searls:

Power from the people, people. Not the other way around. Finally.


: UPDATE: David Weinberger expects these to be the last old-style conventions:

Will we ever do this again? Is 2004 the last year we’re going to have national conventions like these?…

All this is a lot to ask of a city, and it’s a lot to do to a city. In four years, with ratings down, the politics purely ceremonial, and the risk of putting an entire political party in one square block ever higher, will the Democrats and Republicans decide that it’s time to “think outside” this particular box? Let the delegates vote by absentee ballot and then send the candidates to a series of celebratory parties around the country so “all Americans can share the excitement” — and also distribute the risk and costs.

Are these the last conventions we’re going to hold? Or, once I experience one, am I going to see their value?

Reinventing convention coverage

Reinventing convention coverage

: The fact that 15,000 journalists are going to the convention is the best evidence that their bosses have absolutely no news judgment.

Nothing is going to happen there. It’s not news when nothing happens.

This is the real reason I didn’t apply for credential to cover the convention with other bloggers. I said that I wanted to leave room for other citizen journalists who’ve never been behind the curtain before and that’s true. But I also didn’t know what the hell I’d write about: I saw myself with my laptop and wi-fi and camera phone and camera and digital recorder and phone modem: all dressed up and nothing to cover.

Now I hope that the bloggers who are covering the convention find the fresh stories and viewpoints that jaded old journalists (like me) can’t find. I hope they start conversations the politicians and reporters are no longer interested in starting. As Jay Rosen, who’s now in Boston, said in this weekend’s Newsday:

I think the bloggers have something to add:

They don’t know in advance that what they are doing is meaningless; if they did, they wouldn’t do it.

They don’t assume that a ritual is an empty ritual simply because it obeys a script, since this is the very essence of ritual, as any Boy Scout or churchgoer can tell you.

Although we’re told that “bloggers wear their politics on their sleeves,” and things like that, politics is a personal matter for most of them – not a professional interest. Their communication style is citizen-to-citizen, rather than expert-to-layman or media to “mass.”

I’m not worried about the bloggers at the convention. They will find something to say; they will find the stories to hear.

But I am worried about my profession if it’s stupid enough to send thousands of reporters at huge expense to cover a story that they know isn’t there.

Are we nuts?

Last week at the Aspen Institute, I appalled a few of the attendees when I said that if I ran a newspaper — not likely — I would not enter journalism contests because they skew journalism to be for journalists.

Well, now I’ll add another contrarian contention. If I ran a news organization, I would:

1. Send not one single reporter to the political conventions. I’d get everything I could possibly need from these events off the wires (and blogs) and TV. If news is a commodity — and it is — convention coverage is as common as corn.

2. Instead, send reporters across the country to find out what people really care about. No, they wouldn’t do man-on-the-street interviews with one-way quotes. They’d get into conversations about the issues (see the post above) to see what really matters to the citizens. And I’d devote resources to polling to see what the people’s priorities are and how they match up with the politicians’.

3. Make nonvoters a beat. I’d send a few reporters out to talk to the people who don’t give a damn to find out why (and to find out what matters to them instead). No, this isn’t about tryhing to increase voter turnout; not our job.

4. Give the convention the play it deserves. The networks, of course, are giving the conventions less prime time coverage because they don’t deserve it. If all news organizations followed suit, the parties would be forced to reinvent their conventions (see the post above). I’d still cover the conventions, but not devote big headlines to it unless big news happens. Covering the conventions is like covering the new TV season.

: UPDATE: David Weinberger surveys the new media neighborhood in Boston:

The credentialed bloggers are sitting in the section of the bleachers designated “Blogger Boulevard.” Want to know exactly where it is? Easy: It’s on the other side of the Rubicon.

This event marks the day that blogging became something else. Exactly what isn’t clear yet, and the culture clash is resulting in public functions that, because there is no single culture of blogging, are Dostoyevskian in their awkwardness….

The media are trying to figure us out. The DNC is trying to figure us out. We are always