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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit www.dankennedy.net. For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Big Brother's contemptible sneer. John Ashcroft is a pathetic bully. Yesterday he denounced the "hysteria" of those who criticize Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to examine library and bookstore records (among other things) without a grand-jury warrant and without probable cause.

(The Patriot Act, and especially Section 215, is the subject of a piece I wrote for this week's Phoenix.)

Ashcroft wants us to believe that Section 215 is nothing to worry about because it hasn't actually been used. But if he had no intention of using it, why did the White House stick it in there in the first place? Besides, one of the prime uses of a repressive law such as the Patriot Act is not to spy on people directly, but to create an aura of suspicion -- to make you wonder whether you're being watched, whether your reading habits are of interest to the government.

And it's not as though the government never actually snoops on people's reading lists.

A few years ago, Monica Lewinsky's interest in the phone-sex novel Vox became the subject of a subpoena by Clinton persecutor Ken Starr.

The Tattered Cover, a well-known independent bookstore in Denver, barely beat back attempts by a local prosecutor to turn over purchase records related to a drug case.

Here's part of a statement issued by the American Library Association earlier this week:

Attorney General John Ashcroft says the FBI has no interest in Americans' reading records. While this may be true, librarians have a history with law enforcement dating back to the McCarthy era that gives us pause. For decades, and as late as the 1980s, the FBI's Library Awareness Program sought information on the reading habits of people from "hostile foreign countries," as well as U.S. citizens who held unpopular political views.

The fears of librarians and bookstore owners are well-founded. John Ashcroft's making fun of them only deepens those fears.

Johnny Cash overview. Ted Drozdowski has a fine look back at Johnny Cash's career in this week's Phoenix.

posted at 11:26 AM | comment or permalink

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Follow-up: Nike folds on free-speech case. I think I'll move to California and sue Nike. Why not? It worked for Marc Kasky.

Last Friday, lawyers for Kasky -- a San Francisco-based antiglobalization activist -- and Nike announced a settlement to Kasky's five-year-old suit, in which the sneaker-making giant had been accused of making "false and misleading" statements about its labor practices in the Third World (see "Don't Quote Me," News and Features, May 2).

Nike will give $1.5 million to the Fair Labor Association, which will use the money to monitor workplace conditions around the world. That's good.

What's bad is that Nike turned its back on the First Amendment, just as it has been charged with turning its back on its impoverished foreign workers.

Kasky, taking advantage of a California law that allows any resident to act as an attorney general, had accused Nike of what amounted to false advertising by claiming in press releases, letters to the editor, op-eds, and on its Web site that its offshore factories were veritable workers' paradises. Kasky was able to file suit because Nike, though based in Oregon, does business in California (and everywhere else).

Nike, in its defense, had contended that those statements amounted to political, not commercial, speech, and were thus constitutionally protected.

The California Supreme Court sided with Kasky, and ruled that a lower court could conduct a trial on Kasky's suit. Nike appealed to the US Supreme Court. But after agreeing to hear the case, the Court declined to issue a ruling last June, apparently on the grounds that the case was not yet far enough along. Friday's settlement prevents the suit from ever going to trial.

What's got me ready to call an enterprising lawyer is a quote from one of Nike's lawyers, a guy named Walter Dellinger, that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday: "As much as Nike cared about First Amendment issues, we realized there was no way to get the First Amendment issue back to the US Supreme Court unless Nike were to lose at trial and all the way up the ladder, which is not a very attractive or likely prospect."

Okay, here's my case: Nike is making statements about how much it cares about the First Amendment in order to persuade me that it's a warm, fuzzy company from which I should buy running shoes. Dellinger's quote, therefore, amounts to commercial speech -- and it's "false and misleading," since Nike wouldn't have settled if it really cared about freedom of speech. See you in court!

If you think that sounds ridiculous, you're right. Yet it is exactly what Kasky argued in terms of Nike's statements about its treatment of Third World workers. And now the precedent established by the California Supreme Court stands -- at least in California. But since companies will act in such a way so as to avoid getting sued in California, the effect will be felt nationwide.

This case was a mess from the beginning. The problem was the gag reflex that kicks in at the notion of giant corporations' being allowed to lie about how they treat workers at their overseas subsidiaries. Of course, Nike never said it had lied, but its defense amounted to asserting a right to lie -- which is, in fact, protected by the First Amendment as long as the lie doesn't stray into libel.

The ACLU and a raft of media companies lined up on Nike's side. On Kasky's were groups such as ReclaimDemocracy.org, the Sierra Club, and the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute, which argued in an amicus brief that corporations, as artificial entities subject to government regulation, should not enjoy the same constitutional protections as a person.

Think Nike's surrender won't have an effect? Think again. According to an account in Saturday's New York Times, Nike has already stopped making public its annual "corporate responsibility report," and is planning to put some limits on its public statements as well. After all, it wouldn't do to have a bunch of lawsuit-happy Californians poking around Nike's Web site and arguing over the definition of "misleading."

But as the ACLU likes to say, "The best way to counter obnoxious speech is with more speech." Let Nike have its say, then scrutinize its statements and publicize the results.

Except that you can't do it that way. Not anymore.

Get me a lawyer!

posted at 11:21 AM | comment or permalink

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Journalism, politics, and Shannon O'Brien. Back in July, when WLVI-TV (Channel 56) announced it had hired the 2002 Democratic candidate for governor, Shannon O'Brien, as a consumer reporter, observers agreed that O'Brien would have to take care not to be seen indulging her political passions.

"If her first crusade is against alleged consumer fraud by the Romney administration, then there might be some questions," UMass Amherst journalism professor Ralph Whitehead told the Globe on July 11.

So what was O'Brien thinking when she made a purely political speech before the Worcester Democratic City Committee last night?

According to this account (subscription required) in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, O'Brien whacked Mitt Romney, the man who defeated her in the gubernatorial campaign, saying of his fee hikes: "We see now what the truth is about not raising taxes. It comes a little late for me."

She also dumped on George W. Bush and praised John Kerry, urging Democrats to drive to New Hampshire and work on Kerry's presidential campaign.

As for her duties as a TV reporter, which begin in two weeks, O'Brien -- a former state treasurer -- told the crowd, "I'll speak up for people who have been ripped off by businesses and I'll make sure that government is doing the right thing by them."

O'Brien would be a lot more credible in that role if she'd refrain from making what T&G reporter Mark Melady described as "what at times sounded like a campaign stump speech."

posted at 11:53 AM | comment or permalink

Lies from a lying liar. It's a rare day indeed when the media call the White House on one of its mind-boggling lies. So it was refreshing to pick up this morning's Globe and find this front-page story by Anne Kornblut and Bryan Bender that takes Dick Cheney to task for his continued attempts to link Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

At issue is Cheney's appearance on Meet the Press this past Sunday. Among other things, host Tim Russert let Cheney get away with this:

Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in '93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9/11, of course, we've had the story that's been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we've never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know.

It's true! We don't know. But we're pretty sure, aren't we? As the Globe notes, the Czech connection has been "widely discredited." Kornblut and Bender write:

A senior defense official with access to high-level intelligence reports expressed confusion yesterday over the vice president's decision to reair charges that have been dropped by almost everyone else. "There isn't any new intelligence that would precipitate anything like this," the official said, speaking on condition he not be named.

But the story goes on to note that "69 percent of Americans believe that Hussein probably had a part in attacking the United States, according to a recent Washington Post poll."

Cheney knows a good thing when he sees it. And he's not going to give it up -- the truth be damned.

Duke! Duke! Duke! Globe columnist Joan Vennochi has some well-considered nice things to say about Michael Dukakis this morning.

Vennochi -- who is exercised over John Kerry's attempts to distance himself from Dukakis, under whom he served as lieutenant governor in the early '80s -- writes of the former governor, "He is a man of dignity and conviction. After all that he has gone through in politics, he remains idealistic and loyal."

I also suspect that if Dukakis had had this field to run against in 1988, he would have won the Democratic nomination for president even more easily than he did.

You want some Velveeta on that cracker? Salon has an interview with one of my favorite conservatives, Tucker Carlson, ex of the Weekly Standard and now with CNN.

You've got to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but here is Carlson on what's wrong with the talking-heads shows that have come to dominate cable news:

Well, what I think the problem is in general and, not just with Fox, but the genre, is that it encourages you to use a straw man. So for example you see hosts bring on, "This is Jeffrey Mohammed X, and he's the president of the Association to Kill White Motherfuckers," and he'll be presented as a spokesman for black America. And then the host will say, "Well, how can you support lynching white people? That's just wrong!"

Well, of course, it's wrong! This guy doesn't represent anybody! The classic flipside, which I've seen much more, is that you get some 62-year-old, semi-retarded cracker whose [sic] like the lone member of his chapter of the KKK, and he represents white supremacists. How many white supremacists are there in America? There are about nine, and they're all mentally retarded.

Carlson has succeeded in defining everything that's wrong with The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes in two paragraphs. For that, I can almost forgive him for The Spin Room.

Salon is also running excerpts from Carlson's book, Politicians, Partisans and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News.

posted at 8:28 AM | comment or permalink

Monday, September 15, 2003

John Burns's disturbing whodunit. The New York Times' John Burns, whose courageous reporting and darkly lyrical dispatches while Baghdad was under siege comprised some of the best journalism of the war in Iraq, has some astounding things to say on the Editor & Publisher website.

The piece -- excerpted from an oral history -- demands to be read in full. But here is what is sure to be the most controversial paragraph:

In one case, a correspondent actually went to the Internet Center at the Al-Rashid Hotel and printed out copies of his and other people's stories -- mine included -- specifically in order to be able to show the difference between himself and the others. He wanted to show what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state. He was with a major American newspaper.

The whole business is going to be buzzing over whom Burns is referring to. Glenn "InstaPundit" Reynolds calls this and other Burns tales of pro-Saddam lackeydom as "journalism's Nuremberg." Andrew Sullivan describes Burns's revelations as evidence of how "compromised and corrupt" much of the reportage out of Iraq was, and I won't disagree.

Burns calls to mind nothing so much as the admission by CNN's Eason Jordan earlier this year that his operation engaged in years of shameful toadying to Saddam Hussein's regime in order to maintain access.

Whether you're prowar, as Burns seems to be, or antiwar, as Media Log is, you don't want to be forced to depend on media that cover up evil in the course of doing what they think are their jobs. Their jobs are to tell the truth. Period. If they get kicked out of the country, so be it.

Burns's revelations are sickening, and they only increase my admiration for the bravery he showed while stationed in Baghdad.

They should also lead to a lot more than a one-day story.

posted at 5:28 PM | comment or permalink

More on the Man in Black. Jimmy Guterman's tribute to Johnny Cash in today's Globe is one of the better ones that I saw over the weekend. He writes:

Cash transcended limits cultural and political, not just music. Cash wrote a novel based on the Gospel of Paul and shared racy jokes with death-row prisoners; Cash had both Bob Dylan's and Richard Nixon's home phone numbers. His ability to get on the same level with different groups seemed infinite.

CNN last night rebroadcast Larry's King's last interview with Cash, from last November, to mark the release of his final album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Larry is his usual disconnected self. After reading an intro about Cash's new album, he engages his guest about his health problems, then asks:

KING: Can you sing?

CASH: Well, as well as I ever could I guess.

Earth to Larry: how do you suppose he made the album?

A better choice would be Terry Gross's interview on Fresh Air, which was rebroadcast on Friday, the day that Cash died. Not only is Gross a considerably more perceptive and sympathetic interviewer than King, but the show was taped in 1997, when Cash was in better health. I caught the last 15 minutes, and look forward to hearing the whole thing.

Finally, you can watch the entire video of Cash's "Hurt" by clicking here.

Legal limits. I love the Apple Music Store, but until this weekend I had only bought a few individual songs here and there. On Saturday, I bought Johnny Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around. It was simple and painless, but far from perfect.

Mainly it comes down to a matter of value for price. I paid $9.99, which isn't bad. But by the time I had burned it to a CD and stuck it in a jewel case, I was up to $11. Amazon.com today advertises American IV for $13.49. So what did I give up?

  • Art. The songs downloaded as though I had purchased them individually, with none of the packaging that I would have gotten if I'd bought the actual CD. I've seen bootlegs on the Internet where you get a chance to download art, cut it out, and stick it in the jewel case just as though you'd bought it in a store. Yet all Apple gives you is a low-res image of the cover that shows up in iTunes.
  • Credits. At the moment, the Apple Music Store is a Mac-only phenomenon, and the only way you can access your music (before transferring it to a CD or an iPod) is through iTunes. Yet Apple doesn't even take advantage of iTunes' database capabilities by filling in songwriting and production credits. Maybe 12-year-olds don't care, but 47-year-olds do.
  • Sound quality. Okay, my ears can't tell the difference, but the AAC format that Apple uses, though supposedly better than MP3, is still compressed, and thus doesn't carry as much musical information as a regular CD.

Innovative though the Apple Music Store is, when it comes to buying a full album, you're paying almost as much as you would in a store -- and giving up quite a bit.

posted at 8:18 AM | comment or permalink


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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