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Archive for March, 2009

Not Worth the Paper They’re Printed On.

“The most preventable tragedy was the deterioration of quality. Downsized local publications were all but forced to rely on more national content, but that content didn’t have to become so vapid…But that’s what happened. Rather than investing in the valuable steel and concrete of hard reporting, national news outlets began printing the most worthless kind of commercial paper — rumors, personality profiles and other such speculative derivatives that consumers could find elsewhere.

Don’t cry for the end of the newspaper, says Salon‘s David Sirota (who also seems to be feeling a bit Howard Beale-ish right about now.) They brought it on themselves. “‘In place of comprehensive, complex and idiosyncratic coverage, readers of even the most serious newspapers were offered celebrity and scandal, humor and light provocation,’ says journalist-turned-director David Simon, whose HBO series ‘The Wire’ examined this trend.” (Simon has more to say on the subject here.)

As Jack Shafer reminds us, newspapers were scurrilous, scandal-ridden, partisan rags long before they were bastions of citizenship and good journalism. Still, now that the broadsheets have mostly followed their television brethren down the road of endless horse-race-type political coverage and surface-skimming trivialities, what’s their purpose, really? We can get bad, rushed, smart-alecky journalism from TV and the web.

Prisoners of our Own Device.

‘The commission could be the most ambitious attempt to re-examine and reform the criminal justice system since the 1960s,’ said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports reducing incarceration rates. ‘It is a huge undertaking,’ he said.” As he promised a few months ago, Sen. Jim Webb begins the push for a bipartisan commission on prison reform. (Webb’s effort drew particular kudos from Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald this morning.)

Speaking of which, count me among the many (like Greenwald) who found Obama’s glib answer on drug decriminalization during the online town hall the other day to be too smug and snickering by half. People are spending their lives in prison for basically harmless behavior that he — and countless other tsk-tsking political elites — engaged in. That’s not really something to chuckle about.

That being said, it’s obvious that, with everything else going on, Obama has nowhere near the political capital he would need to deal with this sort of thing right now, even if he does possess the inclination. But, Webb’s proposed commission might be exactly the sort of body that could grant Obama the cover he needs to get serious about drug and prison reform. In fact, other than punting on a popular issue like social security, which prison reform emphatically isn’t, that’s pretty much the sole purpose of a bipartisan commission.

Update: In very related news, NY Gov. David Paterson announces a deal has been struck to soften NY’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws and get rid of many mandatory minimums. “‘Since 1973, New York has had the harshest drug laws in the country, and they have simply not worked,’ Paterson said Friday in a radio interview.

Opie and the Old Ones.

Word comes down from the gibbering many-eyed oracles of Hadith that Ron Howard will be directing The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft as his next project after Angels and Demons. “Created by Mac Carter and Jeff Blitz, [the] book borrows elements from Lovecraft’s life, such as his family’s struggle with mental illness and his own bouts with writer’s block, and transforms the young writer’s darkest nightmares into reality when he comes across a book that puts a curse on him and lets the evils he conjures up loose on the world.

Hmm. On first glance, I’d think Ron Howard is exactly the wrong director to handle the depraved tentacled deities and slavering profane minions of the Cthulhu mythos. Then again, his last movie was Frost/Nixon, so perhaps he’s developed a taste for it.

My Own Worst Enemy.

“With Perlow’s Mail Goggles, users can specify which hours they would like to enable the feature. If a user tries to send an e-mail during the self-selected time — say, midnight to 3 a.m. — a screen pops up forcing the user to solve a series of simple math problems before the message can be sent.” Thinking outside the box for new and useful apps, Gmail engineers try to tackle the thorny problem of drailing (drunk e-mailing.) “Perlow created the function last fall when he found himself sending messages to an ex-girlfriend — late at night — asking to get back together.” I feel you, brother.

Mirror to America.

“More than 60 years ago, I began the task of trying to write a new kind of Southern History. It would be broad in its reach, tolerant in its judgments of Southerners, and comprehensive in its inclusion of everyone who lived in the region,’ he wrote….’Looking back, I can plead guilty of having provided only a sketch of the work I laid out for myself.‘” John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009. “I think knowing one’s history leads one to act in a more enlightened fashion. I can not imagine how knowing one’s history would not urge one to be an activist.”

A Fork in the Road.

“It’s a debate that the Bush administration never seriously had in the seven years following the post-9/11 invasion. Now, by contrast, in the wake of three major strategic reviews, Obama is extending and deepening the discussion of Afghanistan, because the outcome of this debate may set the course of American foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency.” Counter-terrorism (CT) or counter-insurgency (COIN)? In Slate, Fred Kaplan discusses the major decision on Afghanistan before Obama this week.

Update: “‘We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,’ Obama said. ‘That is the goal that must be achieved.’” The president announces our new Af-Pak strategy. Sounds like the COINS won out. Update 2: Or did they? Call it CT-plus.

Clinton: Mea Culpa, Mexico.

“‘I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility,’ Clinton told reporters accompanying her to Mexico City a day after the Obama administration said it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the Southwestern frontier and help Mexico battle the cartels.” During a visit to our ailing neighbor, Secretary of State Clinton admits American culpability in the exacerbating of Mexico’s drug war. “‘Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,’ she said. ‘Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians… Clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity… to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible,’ she said.’That’s not right.’

Well, cheers to Sec. Clinton for being honest about some of the causes of Mexico’s escalating drug violence. Still, in pledging tighter borders, more troops, yadda yadda yadda, she and the administration are still dancing around one of the more obvious solutions to the problem.

(State) Secrets and Lies.

“‘Any way you look at it, it’s pretty remarkable,’ said Jon B. Eisenberg, an attorney for al-Haramain. ‘This is an executive branch threat to exercise control over a judicial branch function.’” Rather than Chuck Todd and Ed Henry falling over each other with ill-thought-out, gotcha garbage that conforms to GOP talking points, here’s a question I’d like to have heard the president answer last night: What the hell is going on at the Obama Justice Department, vis a vis the state-secrets privilege? “Civil liberties advocates are accusing the Obama administration of forsaking campaign rhetoric and adopting the same expansive arguments that his predecessor used to cloak some of the most sensitive intelligence-gathering programs of the Bush White House.” That is not at all what we voted for, and it’s nigh time we got a good explanation of why Holder et al are continuing to play by the Dubya playbook.

Obama’s Progressive Solution.

“Officials said the proposal would seek a broad new role for the Federal Reserve to oversee large companies, including major hedge funds, whose problems could pose risks to the entire financial system.” With the AIG bonuses setting the table, the Obama administration prepares to unveil an overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory apparatus. “It will propose that many kinds of derivatives and other exotic financial instruments that contributed to the crisis be traded on exchanges or through clearinghouses so they are more transparent and can be more tightly regulated. And to protect consumers, it will call for federal standards for mortgage lenders beyond what the Federal Reserve adopted last year, as well as more aggressive enforcement of the mortgage rules.”

Whatever malarkey you hear from the GOP about “creeping socialism” over the next few weeks, keep in mind that no less a Republican than Teddy Roosevelt deemed this sort of solution — accountability, transparency, tighter oversight of the financial sector by the federal government — the “New Nationalism” a century ago. In this arena, at least so far, President Obama seems to be living up to his Progressive promise.

Update: “‘Our system failed in basic fundamental ways,’ Geithner told the committee. ‘Compensation practices rewarded short-term profits over long-term returns. Pervasive failures in consumer protection left many Americans with obligations they did not understand and could not sustain. The huge apparent returns to financial activity attracted fraud on a dramatic scale..,To address this will require comprehensive reform. Not modest repairs at the margin, but new rules of the game. And the new rules must be simpler and more effectively enforced.‘” Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner unveils the new regulatory package. [Highlights.] “He said financial products and institutions should be regulated according to their economic function and the risks they pose, not their legal form. ‘We can’t allow institutions to cherry-pick among competing regulators and shift risk to where it faces the lowest standards and weakest constraints,’ he told the committee.”

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