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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, April 23, 2004

BITCH, BITCH, BITCH. If you turn to page E13 of today's Boston Globe, you'll find this where Doonesbury usually appears:

To our readers

The Globe has decided not to publish today's installment of "Doonesbury" because the strip includes language inappropriate for a general readership. The strip's creator declined to change the wording or offer a substitute. "Doonesbury" resumes in tomorrow's comics pages. Today's strip is available online at www.boston.com/ae/comics/.

Now, I already knew that B.D.'s leg had been blown off in Iraq. When I saw the disclaimer this morning, I figured cartoonist Garry Trudeau must have had him let loose an F-bomb. So I was more than a little surprised when I learned the offending phrase was "son of a bitch." Pretty mild stuff.

Romenesko's got a round-up of newspaper reaction. To me, the proof that the Globe overreacted was the decision by the Tallahassee Democrat to run the strip unedited.

A couple of additional observations:

- Adam Gaffin, the Roslindale guy behind Boston Online, did a quick search and found that the Globe published 12 articles last year that used the word "bitch." His suggestion: if "bitch" is too rough for the funny pages, move Doonesbury to the op-ed page. (He also suggests moving Mallard Fillmore and maybe Boondocks to op-ed, but, uh, don't you need room for columns and stuff?)

- The Globe's wimp-out suggests that the Internet has made it too easy for editors to err on the side of hypercaution. Doonesbury has always been controversial, and a number of newspapers have pulled it from time to time over the years. (And, kids, you're not going to believe this: Doonesbury used to be funny, too. It was during a time called the '70s.) Ten years ago, an editor would have to think long and hard before dumping that day's Doonesbury, since it would have been very difficult for readers to see it elsewhere. Today, not only can Globe readers find it on the Web, but the Globe gives them the URL.

The good part is that even if something like today's Doonesbury gets dumped, it's still widely available to almost everyone. The bad part is that this encourages fuzzy thinking: the consequences are much lower for an editor who decides not to run a cartoon if he or she knows that readers will be no more than mildly inconvenienced.

ANOTHER MAGIC WOODWARD MOMENT. The reason that the Bush-Cheney website recommends Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack is that George W. Bush is running for re-election and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld isn't.

In September 2002, according to Woodward, Bush met with congressional leaders and outlined the reasons he was considering going to war. By Woodward's account, it went well. Then it was Rumsfeld's turn. Woodward writes:

In the "Night Note for September 4," Christine M. Ciccone, a young lawyer who covered the Senate for [Nicholas] Calio [Bush's congressional liaison], reported on Rumsfeld's one-and-a-half-hour briefing. "You have already heard it was a disaster and [Trent] Lott views it as having destroyed all of the goodwill and groundwork that the president accomplished during his meeting this morning. I found myself struggling to keep from laughing out loud at times, especially when Sec. Rumsfeld became a caricature of himself with the 'we know what we know, we know there are things we do not know, and we know there are things we know we don't know we don't know.'"

Senators had expected that the briefing, coming on the heels of the president's meeting that morning, would begin the process of making the administration's case, she reported. "Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld was not prepared to discuss Iraq issues, was unwilling to share even the most basic intelligence information, and wasn't having a good day.... There is a lot of cleanup work to do here."

Obviously the senators didn't realize that Rummy was reciting poetry.

posted at 12:39 PM | comment or permalink

Thursday, April 22, 2004

WHAT THE POST DIDN'T TELL YOU. Here's an intriguing tidbit from Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack. In December 2001, the CIA - following up on information from Britain's MI6 - learned of Pakistan's role in nuclear proliferation. CIA director George Tenet reportedly had a meeting with Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, in which he "peel[ed] back the eyeballs" of his host.

Among other things, the CIA feared that nuclear technology had fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda.

The Washington Post learned of this as well. Woodward explains why you didn't read about it:

Two reporters at The Washington Post had got wind of the possible nuclear or dirty bomb threat and a story was about to be published on Sunday, December 2, with some of the details. With Tenet out of the country, a very senior CIA official called me at home hours before the story was to be printed and urged it be delayed.

Of Musharraf, the official said, "We leaned on him heavily" and were "turning the screws." The official said, "We just reached the point where they [the Pakistanis] will work with us. A story would cause them to clam up and they would see it as an attempt to pressure them" through the media. The information was sketchy, he said. "What we have is more suggestive than conclusive."

Len Downie, the executive editor of the Post, spoke with the CIA official and decided to hold the story.

Two days later, Woodward writes, the Post ran a watered-down version.

This is reminiscent of the New York Times' decision in 1961, at another time of high national anxiety, to tone down its story about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after the White House intervened with legendary Washington columnist and editor James Reston. The Times and the Bay of Pigs is as much myth as fact - the truth is that the Times didn't really change its story all that much - but the the circumstances are similar.

I think the Post made the right call on the loose-nuke story, especially coming less than three months after 9/11. Still, it's interesting to find out what goes on behind closed doors at our leading news organizations.

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT TECHNOLOGY. The New York Times is at it again. Just three days after publishing a story about the online-music industry that was largely based on a false premise, today the paper runs an editorial blasting the indecency crusade (good), with reasoning based on yet another false premise (bad, bad!).

Noting that Congress is now considering whether to extend indecency standards to pay-TV services such as HBO, home of The Sopranos, the Times writes: "Washington's pro-decency crusade is no excuse to regulate media that do not use public airwaves. Tony Soprano's foul speech is constitutionally protected."

My goodness gracious, no, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, and as Tony Soprano might soon be saying as well. As I explained recently, it might very well be possible to extend indecency standards to cable - including pay TV - because, in fact, those services do use the public airwaves. Remember, cable used to be called "community antenna television," and though the name has changed, the technology hasn't. Your local cable operator has a huge "head end" antenna somewhere in the vicinity that pulls programming off a satellite before sending it to your home. The signal travels from satellite to head-end antenna via - are you paying attention, Gail Collins? - the public airwaves!

Because of this, there are those who believe the FCC doesn't even need additional congressional approval to start regulating cable.

The best legal argument for leaving pay TV alone is that, unlike over-the-air broadcast channels that come into your home whether you want them or not, you've got to make two voluntary choices to get, say, HBO: first, you've got to sign up for cable or satellite TV; then you've got to make the additional decision to pay for HBO.

The Times' heart is in the right place, but it's not going to convince anyone if it can't make a technologically factual argument.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. What's wrong with campaign-finance reform. Also, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson has words with the Defense Department and the Secret Service.

posted at 7:49 AM | comment or permalink

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

MAYBE IF ASHCROFT DEMANDS THE CAPE COD TIMES' SUBSCRIPTION LIST ... The indefatigable Walter Brooks has posted on his Cape Cod Media site two editorials on the loathsome Patriot Act. One, from the New York Times, is against it. The other, from the Cape Cod Times, is all for it.

Amazingly, the Cape Cod paper, part of the Dow Jones empire, goes so far as to support the most chilling part of the Patriot Act - Section 215, which allows federal agents, with minimal court oversight, to demand that a library or bookstore turn over the records of a patron in total secrecy, with no right of appeal. The editorial says:

That's why the Patriot Act allows - with FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court approval - the FBI to snoop and gather third-party records without the criminal requirement of certifying that a crime has already taken place, or informing the subject of a search with a traditional warrant. If a terror attack is looming, what would be the point of telling would-be Mohammed Attas they're under suspicion?

By contrast, the New York Times says this:

Among the most troubling provisions is Section 215, which allows the F.B.I. to order libraries, hospitals and others with personal records to hand over such information about individuals. People like librarians can be jailed if they refuse, or if they notify the targets. Another authorizes "sneak and peek" searches, in which the government can secretly search people's homes and delay telling them about the intrusions. As troubling as specific provisions like these is the "mission creep" that has inevitably occurred. Mr. Bush's own Justice Department told Congress last fall that the act's loosened restrictions on government surveillance were regularly being used in nonterrorism cases, like drug trafficking and white-collar crime.

Brooks presents the two editorials with this puckish introduction: "Both the Cape Cod Times and the New York Times ran lead editorials today on the wisdom of passing The Patriot Act which expires shortly. The two editorials are diametrically opposed, and we recommend that our readers be the judge of which advice to follow."

REAL MEN DON'T NEED TRIALS. Also not big on legal protections today is the Boston Herald, whose front-page - festooned with a huge file photo of Saddam Hussein shortly after being pulled out of the spider hole - declares: $75 MILLION TO PROVE WHAT WE KNOW ALREADY: HE'S GUILTY!

Inside, David Guarino's story makes the perfectly reasonable point that $75 million is an awful lot of money for the tribunal that Iraq plans to establish.

posted at 11:58 AM | comment or permalink

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

KERRY'S RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN. Boston Globe Washington-bureau chief Peter Canellos has come up with a new way of framing the Bush-Kerry race. In his Tuesday "National Perspective" column, Canellos writes that Kerry is running as the incumbent and Bush as the challenger. The idea is that with Bush under fire for his handling of such life-and-death matters as Iraq and 9/11, it is Kerry who represents continuity and Bush who personifies radical change - change for the worse:

Kerry, for his part, seems to have realized that his best hope is to run as the Default President, the place to which voters can connect when the regular president goes on the fritz.

This makes Kerry's position unusual, to say the least, for a presidential challenger. Instead of painting castles in the sky and urging voters to share his dreams, Kerry has been grounding himself in the policies of the past. He will try to become the incumbent in the race, representing 50 years of postwar consensus against four years of Bush.

Canellos is definitely on to something, but is Kerry being smart? For the moment, yes, because Bush is melting down. But surely the Kerry campaign can't expect that to last through Election Day. Once Bush regains his groove, Kerry's current above-the-fray stance is going to start looking an awful lot like the diffidence that got him into so much trouble last year, when his campaign nearly died before it could reach the starting line.

Slate's Kerry-loathing blogger, Mickey Kaus, argues (scroll down to April 12) that the senator's best shot is to stay out of sight: "John Kerry does best when he's exposed to the voters least! His optimal approach is to let Bush stew in the Iraq mess while he remains offstage, an attractive unknown. Any other strategy is a triumph of vanity over recent experience."

But that's not right. In fact, it's when Kerry gets over-confident and slides into autopilot that he gets into trouble. In nearly every one of his political campaigns, he's looked surprisingly vulnerable until crunch time, when he goes into crisis mode and blows his opponent away, whether it be Bill Weld in Massachusetts eight years ago or Howard Dean in Iowa three months ago. Somehow I doubt that's going to work against Karl Rove.

It's crisis time right now, and it's going to stay that way until November.

SPEED READING. Unless you're actually planning to read all 432 pages of John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (and you know you're not; I might, but then I get paid to do such things), you will want to check out Chris Suellentrop's amusing guide to the highlights.

posted at 9:11 AM | comment or permalink

Monday, April 19, 2004

WHEN DID BUSH TELL RICE HE WAS GOING TO WAR? How soon we forget! The national-security adviser went on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday and responded to the charge in Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, that George W. Bush decided to go to war in January 2003, while UN weapons inspections were still under way. The Los Angeles Times reports:

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was not made in January 2003, as a new book asserts, but came in March, after all efforts to avoid a war had been exhausted.

The statement in "Plan of Attack," by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, is "simply not, not right," Rice said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

In an interview broadcast yesterday evening on CBS's "60 Minutes," Woodward said that "the decision [to invade] was conveyed to Condi Rice in early January.... [Bush] was frustrated with the weapons inspections. He had promised the United Nations and the world and the country that either the U.N. would disarm Saddam [Hussein] or he, George Bush, would do it, and do it alone if necessary."

But Rice said the final determination that war would occur came more than two months after their private conversation at Bush's Texas ranch.

In that conversation, Rice told CBS, she and Bush were discussing Bush's frustrations with Saddam, who Bush said "was starting to fool the world again, as he had over the past 12 years."

"He said, 'Now, I think we probably are going to have to go to war, we're going to have to go to war,'" Rice said.

But that "was not a decision to go to war," she continued. "The decision to go to war is in March. The president is saying in that [January] conversation, 'I think the chances are that this is not going to work out any other way. We're going to have to go to war.'"

You can read the full Face the Nation transcript here (PDF format). But let's get real, shall we? If anything, Woodward is being incredibly generous to the White House in asserting that the decision was not made until January 2003. Here's the lead of a piece that appeared in Time magazine on March 31, 2003:

"F--- Saddam. we're taking him out." Those were the words of President George W. Bush, who had poked his head into the office of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It was March 2002, and Rice was meeting with three U.S. Senators, discussing how to deal with Iraq through the United Nations, or perhaps in a coalition with America's Middle East allies. Bush wasn't interested. He waved his hand dismissively, recalls a participant, and neatly summed up his Iraq policy in that short phrase. The Senators laughed uncomfortably; Rice flashed a knowing smile. The President left the room.

As far as I know, Time's account has never been challenged. As we know from a spate of new books - by former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, journalist Ron Suskind (who collaborated with former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill), and others - the White House, and especially Vice-President Dick Cheney, started talking about going to war with Iraq in 2001, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, spoke infamously about not wanting to roll out a "new product" (war, that is) until September 2002.

And good grief: Time's Karen Tumulty was on the set with Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer yesterday, but she never said a thing about her own magazine's year-old exclusive. What is wrong with these people?

DIGITALLY CLUELESS AT THE TIMES. In today's New York Times, Ken Belson writes about Sony's attempts to catch up with Apple in the online music business. The ninth paragraph is a howler:

Like Apple's iTunes online music store, [Sony's] Connect will have 500,000 songs that can be downloaded for 99 cents each. But while iTunes songs can be played only on iPods, Sony already sells a variety of devices, including minidisc and compact disc players, which can play songs bought on Connect's Web site. Sony's new Hi-MD disc player, for instance, will hold up to 45 hours of music on one disc, which will retail for about $7.

Well, uh, no. Not even close. At the most basic level, you can burn a CD with songs that you download from the iTunes Music Store, allowing you to listen to your music on any CD player on the planet. In fact, that's the way most people use the store - popular though the iPod may be, there are far more iTunes Music Store customers out there than there are iPod owners. Belson should have looked at this.

But though that's Belson's most obvious mistake, it goes deeper. Apple sells songs in a format known as AAC, which appears to be the crux of Belson's confusion. AAC is a competitor to MP3 that provides slightly smaller file sizes, slightly better sound quality, and "digital rights management" protection - that is, you can burn "playlists" onto a few CDs, but you can't burn, say, 100, at least not without changing the order of the tracks. There are a few other limitations, too. The idea is to let you share your music with family members and friends, but not to enable full-scale piracy.

However, the tracks on the CD you've just burned are no longer AACs - they've been expanded into standard AIFF files, as are all sound tracks on CDs. (This obviously doesn't mean that the richness that was stripped out when the music was compressed has somehow been magically restored; that's gone for good.) You can now take your CD and rip it into plain, unprotected MP3s. (Apple's claims that these MP3s will somehow be unlistenable are - how to put this? - not true. This is the equivalent of your first-grade teacher telling you that you will die if you put your pencil in your mouth.)

Now you can do anything you like with your MP3-ized iTunes songs - copy them onto a non-Apple MP3 player, burn them onto a CD-MP3 disc (like the 45-hour disc to which Belson refers), whatever. Some of those devices might even carry the Sony brand.

This is not a minor error that Belson made. The entire point of his story is that consumers of digital music are awash in a sea of proprietary standards - Apple's got one, Microsoft's got another, and now Sony is about to introduce yet another. Gosh darn, what is the poor consumer to do?

Well, one place to start is to go somewhere other than the New York Times for authoritative information.

posted at 9:39 AM | comment or permalink


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

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