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Real Journalists

The holder of this card is a professional journalist and all authorities and IFJ affiliated organizations should extend to the bearer every assistance and courtesy in the performance of his or her mission.

 

 

I have just received my new International Federation of Journalists press card, which is accepted as a bona fide credential in 141 countries. As a free lancer, I have been reliant on press passes for many years and have never had a problem, until recently. I am a member of the prestigious Authors Guild which offers this prestigious card via the IFJ in Brussels. A writer/journalist has to qualify; the passes are not given to anyone. But now that I've proudly stashed the new card in my purse, I'm wondering if it will do me any good in the United States where there are so few news outlets left that value real journalists. Even worse, perhaps, are the many publicists who make certain that a journalist's uncomfortable questions remain unanswered. Obstruction of information. Sound familiar?

 

Controlling the flow of information, spinning, all that I accept as a publicist's job and a journalist's nemesis. But outright lying, refusal to grant interviews, stonewalling voice messages and emails in the hope that an intrepid reporter will go away and give up, that's new. And it does not bode well for our democracy. Isn't it an American journalist's mandate to exercise her First Amendment rights. Or have we forgotten?

 

Consider, for example, the demise of a robust local press. Stories in local—print and online—newspapers these days often read like unadulterated public relations handouts. So-called "facts" are unattributed and uncorroborated, and journalists on staff are frustrated by the lack of editorial support for their investigative efforts. In other words, we cannot blame the current regime in Washington DC for spinning, or faking the news, or telling vicious lies; they are merely taking advantage of the new, yet more market-driven news culture. And that includes all the punditry on broadcast and cable outlets. We need them, they are mostly doing a good job, but they are also making a fortune as they deliver their audience to the advertisers 24-7.

 

It's taken me a long time to accept this and, frankly, I am both disgusted and deeply concerned. It's one of the many reasons I started this blog. At least here I am free to write what I wish, uncensored, and oblivious to market pressures. Consequently, I don't quit. When I have a difficult question to ask, I ask it. I don't take no for an answer. If one source folds, I find another. That's what real journalists do. And when I discover a complicated story that requires the resources and clout of an institution, I pass it along to a still-standing, still reputable major news outlet such as The New York Times; they often pursue a lead for which all of us should be grateful. Most of the time. A recent story I generated didn't lead to much more than a cub reporter gathering clips and re-arranging them. No original interviews, no footwork. To say the least, I was disappointed. Time to get back into it, and unearth the real story behind the story, even if I have to do it on my own. Worse case scenario, it goes up on this blog which is RSS fed to four outlets. Dear reader, thanks to you I get some traffic. Viva the internet!

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Words Matter; A Demagogue Speaks

The Demagogue: his hair looks like a croissant, his mouth like Mussolini's.
“How Does a Nation Turn to Hate?” That’s a tag line on the New York Historical Society website this month. I went to see their small exhibition, “Antisemitism 1919-1939,” and took lots of notes. It was the only way I could concentrate without becoming very upset.

First of all, as many of my readers know, my parents were genocide survivors. Secondly, the Nazi propaganda displayed in the vitrines felt eerily familiar in this 2016 election year. At first, Hitler was dismissed as a fringe crank. It didn’t take him long to become Chancellor.

So I’m weighing in on the “Trump Phenomena.” His campaign is not at all funny or entertaining. It’s terrifying. Like Hitler and his cohorts, he is a master of media manipulation and inflammatory, subliminal messages, nuanced enough to avoid accusations of “hate speech" yet remain within the realm of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. It's incendiary nonetheless. Trump is the voice of bigotry and has given bigotry a voice. And if he now claims—cynically—that he’s just a regular guy and is going to calm down, that’s even worse. The damage has been done.

In Nazi Germany, Hitler had many “willing executioners,” as Harvard scholar Daniel Goldhagen wrote in a 1995 book of that title. Men and women who were acquiescent, men and women who obeyed. The Nazi killing machine revved up incrementally. It began by endlessly repeating words and images of dirty money-grabbing Jews who were “repulsive parasites,” the cause of all Germany’s problems since the beginning of time. There were even children’s books written to reinforce these messages and a couple of them are on display at the NY Historical Society exhibition. I had never seen them before. They are shocking.

The indoctrination of ordinary citizens ended in The Nuremberg Laws—the legal foundation of Hitler’s Holocaust—and the death camps. Where will Trump’s campaign lead us as a nation? His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim epithets deny our citizens, asylees, refugees and applicants for American citizenship, the fundamental right to live without threat of violence. His language inflames those who hate, those who may carry guns; we are a well-armed nation. Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked in recent months. And no wonder.

We have had other demagogues running for office in the past, but that fact does not make Donald Trump any less dangerous. We must stop him for the sake of our children and our democracy.  Read More 
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Welcome to the Dragnet

Julia Angwin, an award winning former Wall Street Journal reporter who now works for the independent news organization ProPublica, signs the flyleaf of her recently published book: “It’s an honor to be caught in the dragnet with you.”

Like several investigative journalists these days, she is concerned for the safety of her sources, many of whom are whistleblowers who may very well lose their jobs if they talk. The safeguards for Federal whistleblowers are nearly non-existent so Ms. Angwin is constantly searching for unorthodox ways to set up meetings. She sends snail letters, buys burner phones, uses secure electronic drop boxes and Duck Duck Go as her search engine.

Snail mail is cumbersome and problematic for a reporter working to deadline. On a recent trip to Washington DC, some sources didn’t answer her burner phone because they didn’t recognize the number. Several appointments fizzled. And this is one of many frustrations for journalists since dragnet data collection and other new technologies have outpaced our understanding of their damaging effects to the free flow of information in our democracy.

And what does this data collection consist of? Everything and nothing. And this is a paradox, of sorts. We release information to the cybersphere but have little knowledge of the day to day lives of many in our neighborhoods, in our country, and elsewhere. How many Indians know about the poor people behind the retainer wall next to the airport in Mumbai? There are 90,000 of them, collecting recyclable garbage from the airport hotels. It took a reporter, Katherine Boo, to expose the corruption and disdain of the Indian government in her Pulitzer Prize winning book: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I am just reading it now. I had no idea. I was blind and ignorant of this horror on the other side of the world. So, yes, drag the net and collect data—which costs billions by the way—and then--is it asking too much?-- do something with it for the common good.

Should all writers be concerned? The answer is yes. Should all citizens? Yes.

These rhetorical questions were addressed on Tuesday night at Fordham Law School by Ms. Angwin and a distinguished panel moderated by Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center. Unlike other in this series, “Balancing Security and Social Justice,” the audience was a bit sparse. True, the weather was balmy, spring in the air, but I worried that the 24-hour-news cycle’s interest had waned. It would pick-up again if Edward Snowden returned to the US, was arrested and indicted. Hero or traitor? The arguments on both sides are fraught and heated. But at least we won’t be tossed into jail for arguing.

And that is the point, or one of the points, so far as I am concerned. Now that dragnet surveillance of both our trivial and important “information” has been exposed, we are able to talk about it, write about it, and attend panel discussions. For this basic human Constitutional right, we have to thank our Founding Fathers, and Benjamin Franklin, one of our first whistleblowers:

http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/12/benjamin-franklin-americas-first-whistleblower/.

Venceremos.  Read More 
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Pussy Riot Silenced

I went to a conference at the NYU Law School last Friday called “Pussy Riot & Protest; The Future of Dissent in Putin’s Russia & Beyond.” The conference was also sponsored by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, The Art Law Society, the Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Performance Studies and the Department of Art and Public Policy. It was an impressive gathering, the second I had attended in one week about the freedom to write, the freedom to protest, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to perform. On the dais: Pussy Riot’s Russian defense team, four articulate lawyers, all of them risking arrest when they return to Russia.

Why should it matter to American writers, artists, lawyers, professors and students that three Russian feminist punk rock artists have been sent to a hard labor camp for two years because they staged a protest performance at a church in central Moscow? Moscow is far away. Russia is not America.

I was struggling to answer this self-inflicted question—partially rhetorical—when a poet got up on stage and declaimed a wild, bold and obscene poem, riffing on the word pussy in the spirit of the Vagina Monologues. That was a show stopper because this bold poet would have been bleeped continually on American television. In fact, the other night when Salman Rushdie appeared on The Daily Show, he was bleeped several times, as was Jon Stewart. Comedy Central is owned by whom? The FCC has these rules because? Our media operates without prior restraint? The articles I have submitted for publication have never been censored/edited to satisfy the advertisers?

So, we live in a Great Democracy where freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. True? Partially true? Almost true?

Consider Facebook, for example, which I thoroughly approve of and enjoy. I was skeptical at first—see early blogs back in 2008 and 2009—but no longer. And I belong to an open group where the administrators welcome comments so long as they cheer everyone along. No dissenting voices are allowed to remain as comments; they are deleted. I am always writing dissenting comments and asking questions; they are often deleted. Why not open the conversation? No, not permitted. I find this disheartening. My free speech has been deleted. I have been silenced. Debate on an important subject has been eviscerated.

In the smallest of ways, and at the most local level, all silencing matters.  Read More 
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