Tag Archives: Barack Obama

No, the entire country has not gone Trump-crazy

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Police photo of Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabbing reporter Michelle Fields’s arm.

At a time when it seems like the entire political world has gone mad, I offer some welcome perspective this morning from E.J. Dionne:

  • President Obama’s approval rate is currently 53 percent. At a similar point in George W. Bush’s presidency, his standing had fallen to 32 percent.
  • Donald Trump’s favorability rating is a minuscule 33 percent, and just 34 percent among independents. The vast majority of his support comes from Republicans, 64 percent of whom view him favorably.

Dionne writes:

Trumpism is not sweeping the nation. It has a strong foothold only in the Republican Party, and not even all of it….

We are allowing a wildly and destructively inaccurate portrait of us as a people to dominate our imaginations and debase our thinking.

We’ve got a long way to go between now and November. As Dionne notes, the successes of Trump and Bernie Sanders “reveal the discontent of Americans who have been left out in our return to prosperity.” (Needless to say, even though both Trump and Sanders have embraced economic populism, only Sanders has managed to do so without couching it in the language of racism and violence.)

But it’s wrong to think that the entire country has gone nuts. Just part of it. And I agree with Dionne that the media could do a far better job of making that clear.

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Clinton, Obama, Libya, and the New York Times

Yes, I read all of the New York Times‘ two-parter on Hillary Clinton and Libya. Is it damaging to Clinton? It depends on your perspective regarding the use of force.

On the one hand, the reporting shows that Clinton pushed hard to get us involved despite President Obama’s misgivings, thus helping to create the current disastrous situation. On the other hand, you could argue that the disaster flows directly from Obama’s tentativeness—letting himself be dragged into a conflict he didn’t want and then refusing to do what was needed to ensure stability.

For all the outstanding work the Times has done, I suspect that this won’t move anyone’s needle. If you’re a supporter of Clinton’s muscular approach to foreign policy, you’ll think this vindicates her. If you’re more inclined toward Obama’s non-interventionism (as I am), you’ll wonder why the president didn’t say no right from the start.

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Your Saturday media round-up

No, not the debut of a new feature. But there’s a lot going on today. So let’s get to it.

• Jason Rezaian is coming home. Rezaian, who’s a Washington Post reporter, is being released by Iran along with three other prisoners as part of a swap. Meanwhile, Iran is moving closer to compliance with the nuclear deal, and, as we know, it returned without incident a group of American sailors who had drifted into its territorial waters even as the Republican presidential candidates were calling for war or something.

What President Obama’s critics refuse to acknowledge is that Iran is complicated, factionalized, and slowly lurching toward better (not good) behavior. Obama has invested a considerable amount of his moral authority into trying to nudge along a less dangerous Iran, and his efforts are paying off.

And kudos to Post executive editor Marty Baron, who has kept the spotlight on Rezaian’s unjust imprisonment for the past year and a half.

• The routes are at the root. Boston Globe reporter Mark Arsenault today has the most thorough examination yet of what went wrong with the Globe‘s home-delivery system when it switched vendors at the end of December. Arsenault takes a tough look at the decisions made by the paper’s business executives, who clearly did not do enough vetting of the plans put together by the new vendor, ACI Media Group. And he opens with Globe publisher John Henry amid thousands of undelivered papers at the Newton distribution center, sending a message that, yes, the owner is engaged.

As has been reported previously, but not in as much detail as Arsenault offers, ACI’s routes just didn’t make sense. And what looked like a mere glitch at the end of day one turned into a catastrophe as drivers walked off the job once they realized there was no way they could make their appointed rounds.

It’s the Globe itself that has to take primary responsibility, of course. But based on Arsenault’s report, ACI officials—who did not speak to him—clearly sold the Globe a bill of goods. If ACI has a different perspective on what happened, we’d like to hear it soon.

• Digital First workers revolt. Employees at Digital First Media are fighting for their first raise in seven to 10 years, according to an announcement by workers represented by the Newspaper Guild. These folks have been abused for years by bad ownership as hedge funds have sought to cash in.

The effort covers some 1,000 Guild members. It’s unclear whether employees at non-Guild papers—including the Lowell Sun and the New Haven Register—would be helped.

Obama, Republicans agree: The State of the Union is Trump

The divider-in-chief. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.

The divider-in-chief. Photo (cc) 2015 by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

President Obama told a few jokes during his final State of the Union address. The best one, though, was so couched in the language of humility and high-mindedness that it flew right over everyone’s heads.

Claiming that one of his “few regrets” was that “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said: “There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

Obama surely knows as well as anyone that Abraham Lincoln’s election led directly to the Civil War. As for Franklin Roosevelt, here’s what he had to say about the one percent of his era: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

In fact, we live in divisive times—a moment when we can’t agree on issues ranging from gun control to climate change; when Republican representatives and senators Tuesday night couldn’t bring themselves to offer even tepid applause for Obama’s call for universal pre-kindergarten and “more great teachers for our kids.”

The unnamed guest at the State of the Union—and in South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s Republican response—was Donald Trump, who has emerged as the exemplar of that divisiveness, and a dangerous one at that. Defying all predictions (including mine) that he would fade by the time the presidential campaign got serious, Trump continues to loom large, offering little other than an authoritarian appeal to rage and racism.

Obama addressed Trump with this: “When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

Haley, calling herself “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” also addressed Trump directly, though, like Obama, she did not name him: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation. No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.”

It was a poignant moment for perhaps our two most successful nonwhite political leaders—both Christians, one suspected by his enemies of being a secret Muslim, the other raised a Sikh. But it remains to be seen whether it will do any good. As you may have heard, right-wing controversialist Ann Coulter responded on Twitter that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.”

At Talking Points Memo, liberal journalist Josh Marshall called Obama’s speech “a rebuke to the Trumps and the Cruzes” and, for the rest of the country, “a wake up call, a friendly reality check.” He also described the Trump moment that Obama was addressing in apocalyptic terms—which increasingly strikes me as appropriate:

We’re in the midst of a presidential primary race which has antics and spectacle but, taken in full, is putting on display a dark side and dark moment in America. Not to put too fine a point on it but an avowed white nationalist group is running campaign advertisements for the Republican frontrunner. And it doesn’t seem to be taken as that big a deal. The frontrunner himself can’t even bother to disavow it.

Will any of this have an effect? As other observers have noted, Haley was chosen to give the response by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and she no doubt said exactly what they wanted her to say. If the Republicans somehow manage to choose a normal nominee, she would make a logical running mate.

But Trump’s core supporters—angry, less educated white men—are probably no happier about being lectured to by an Indian-American woman than they are by an African-American. “The target,” wrote Slate’s Jim Newell of Haley’s speech, “would appear to be Trump’s brand of nativism, which, as we know, is also a significant share of Republican voters’ brand of nativism.”

Or as the conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru put it at National Review:

Won’t Trump and his supporters be able to claim vindication from the fact that both President Obama and the Republican respondent to him, Nikki Haley, gave speeches that attacked him? Indeed, that obviously reflected an obsession with him? He wants to stand against the leaders of both parties, and today they both obliged.

Dana Milbank, a liberal columnist for The Washington Postpraised Obama’s speech, writing that “in the current environment, there is nothing more important than answering the dangerous demagoguery that has arisen.” You could say the same about Haley, whose remarks were less pointed, but who had a narrower path to walk given that she was calling out a fellow Republican.

We’ll find out during the next few weeks whether it did any good. To return to Lincoln and FDR, we presumably ought to be able to get through this moment without a civil war, and we’re finally recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of Roosevelt’s time.

What we really need—to invoke a considerably less distinguished president—is a return to normalcy. It will be up to the voters soon enough.

A journalist fights the power for public information

P.E. PVD HEADSHOT WEYBOSSET smallBy Philip Eil   

For more than three and a half years I’ve been fighting to access evidence from a trial that sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms. The defendant in that case—Dr. Paul Volkman, the “Pill Mill Killer,” the “largest physician dispenser of Oxycodone in the US from 2003-2005”—went to college and medical school with my dad, and I’m trying to write a book about him.

Now, it might sound odd that I, or anyone in this country, would have to fight for access to trial evidence that’s already been shown in open court. Doesn’t the Sixth Amendment guarantee all citizens a public trial? Haven’t landmark court decisions established that trial evidence can’t be un-published? And, if all else fails, doesn’t the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) offer transparency insurance? After all, no one administering the law with President Obama’s 2009 “presumption in favor of disclosure” memo in mind would withhold previously published trial evidence, would they?

The answer to each of these questions is “You would think so.” But more than four and a half years after Volkman’s trial ended (the verdict was delivered May 10, 2011, a date tattooed on my brain), the vast majority of the evidence hasn’t been released. Judges, clerks, and prosecutors have all denied my requests. And when I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice in February 2012, the events that ensued were, in the words of MuckRock, a “nightmare.” That’s why—with the help of the Rhode Island ACLU and pro bono attorneys Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell from Nixon Peabody—I’m suing the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a sense, my case revolves around a simple question: can the government seal off a trial—in this case, for reasons related to medical privacy—once the jury has been dismissed and the defendant hauled to prison? I say “No.” The government, apparently, says “Yes.”

And, for now, let’s stick with the theme of simplicity. Because, as this lawsuit trudges on, there’s really only one document you need to see. It’s a 62-page packet filed “for review and consideration by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals” by the Ohio US attorney’s office on February 19, 2013.

In February of 2013, Volkman was fighting to have his conviction overturned, while the Ohio US attorney (the office that had successfully prosecuted him) was fighting to make sure the conviction stuck. With this 62-page packet, prosecutors presented a curated selection—16 exhibits, out of more than 200 shown at trial—of their most powerful evidence. Unlike any of the other trial exhibits, the packet was uploaded to PACER, making it accessible to the public.

That’s worth repeating: by submitting this packet to the appellate court, prosecutors published trial evidence. And they did so with very few redactions. Only a handful of black bars appear in the packet to cover Social Security numbers and birthdays on death certificates, and—curiously—the last name of one of Volkman’s victims (but not three others) on prescription slips and medical-exam reports. Mostly, the trial exhibits are published in their pristine, un-redacted natural state.

Mind you, these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that were withheld or aggressively redacted when I asked the DOJ for them in 2012. And these are the same prescription slips, death certificates, and reports that the Rhode Island US attorney (which is handling the lawsuit for the DEA) withheld or aggressively redacted when the office attempted to settle my case with two new “releases” on July 29 and August 31, 2015.

Which brings me to the one thing to remember about my case. Even if you ignore the Sixth Amendment, pro-courtroom-transparency court decisions, and Obama’s “presumption in favor of disclosure” FOIA memo, the government’s stance in this case still doesn’t make any sense. Because, as the 62-page packet from 2013 shows, the government is currently defending a privacy line they’ve already broken.

Four and a half years is a long time to wait for the release of this trial evidence. And I’ve come to view my FOIA case as a symbol of a lot of things: bureaucratic incompetence; Obama-era bullying and intimidation of journalists; and the disturbing fact that the US government, in 2015, can’t live up to some of this country’s founding principles. But, as with so many governmental failures, this is also a story about wasted taxpayer dollars. After receiving my FOIA request in 2012, DEA employees spent untold hours painstakingly redacting pages of trial evidence that had already been shown in open court. (Six hundred seventy-four days passed between my first partial FOIA-response release in May 2013, and my last, in March 2015.) And, right now, it seems there are people in the Rhode Island US attorney’s office working to make sure this previously published evidence (a chunk of which was re-published, in 2013) doesn’t see the light of day.

These are not top-secret documents. This is evidence that sent a man to prison. This is evidence from a case that traveled all the way to the US Supreme Court. This is evidence that was presented in every US citizen’s name, since we were all plaintiffs in “the United States of America vs. Paul Volkman.” Welcome to the “most transparent administration in history.”

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist and former news editor at the now-closed Providence Phoenix. His work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Vice, Salon, Rhode Island Monthly, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Email him at philip dot edward dot eil at gmail dot com and find him on Twitter at @phileil.

How U.S. respect for LGBT rights influences the world

My friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar has written an important op-ed piece for The Boston Globe about how respect for LGBT rights in the United States has a positive effect on the rest of the world.

Susan recently accompanied the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus to Israel and Turkey. While in Istanbul, government tanks blasted Pride marchers with tear gas and water cannons. It was a harrowing scene, but the chorus itself was able to perform in front of more than 3,000 people — in part because U.S. Consul General Charles Hunter, who’s married to a Turkish man, had made it clear he’d be attending. Susan writes:

The concert in Istanbul was a rare public expression of LGBT culture in the Muslim world. It would not have taken place without Hunter’s intervention. By informing the Turkish government in advance that he would be sitting in the front row, he ensured our safety, and that of the audience. It was one example of many this past June of US-led efforts to celebrate and honor LGBT people around the world by marking LGBT Pride month.

Something to think about as the 2016 presidential campaign gets under way.

Clean water, political infighting and the View from Nowhere

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I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.

Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.

My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:

WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.

The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.

I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:

Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.

Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.

Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.

My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:

Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.

Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.

OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.

One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.

As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”

Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:

Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.

(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)

For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”

Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.

Photo by Sergei Rubliov is in the public domain.