April 30, 2009

A Simple and Straightforward Case

As This Modern World illustrates, ongoing efforts by Bush Administration apologists, self-styled masters of real politik, and Fox News Channel talking heads to cloud the issue of American torture policy is, at its heart, ridiculous. That hasn't stopped people like Michael Sheuer, an outspoken former CIA analyst noted for his expertise on radical Islam - but not on either law or interrogation - from making an ass of himself.

In a Washington Post editorial - the opening paragraphs of which could double for an episode of the television show 24 - Mr. Sheuer does his level best to fear monger and fly fully in the face of not only the expert opinion of experienced interrogators, but of the rule of law:
Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families. The interrogation techniques in question, the president asserted, are a sign that Americans have lost their "moral compass," a compliment similar to Attorney General Eric Holder's identifying them as "moral cowards." Mulling Obama's claim, one can wonder what could be more moral for a president than doing all that is needed to defend America and its citizens? Or, asked another way, is it moral for the president of the United States to abandon intelligence tools that have saved the lives and property of Americans and their allies in favor of his own ideological beliefs?
There are so many things wrong with this single paragraph - let alone the entire column - that it is a daunting task to examine them all, so the only thing to do is take it head-on. Simply stated, President Obama did NOT assert that his personal beliefs outweigh the security of the nation. Rather, he stated - rightly, given our prosecution of others who have performed it on American prisoners of war - that waterboarding is torture, and that torture is illegal.

Again, for the benefit of people like Michael Sheuer, President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and that treaty was ratified by the Senate. Those two facts make the Convention domestic American law - however inconvenient that might be for some - and that document defines torture as follows:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Could it be any more clear that Mr. Obama's position is wholly in keeping with the rule of law that is the very foundation of the United States? Apparently for Mr. Sheuer, further clarification is, in fact, required, since his next line of attack is to attempt the justification of torture as some sort of moral imperative because he believes it works.

Once more: It is completely, one hundred percent irrelevant if torture works always, sometimes or never. No one - NO ONE - in the United States is above the law, and torture is illegal. And just how twisted does one's brain have to be in order to make the case that torture is the moral thing to do?

If the Michael Scheuers of the world - not to mention the Dick Cheneys and Sean Hannitys - really believe that torture is a crucial tool that American interrogators cannot do without, why don't they simply advocate U.S. withdrawal from the Convention Against Torture? The answer is simple; they believe such a campaign would be untenable, and that they have the right, therefore, to circumvent the law. They see themselves as anointed to do as they please in the name of "protecting" us, and entitled to use whatever shortsighted tactics are at their disposal, no matter the long term cost to the country.

President Obama could not have been more right when he said this on Wednesday night, at his press conference:
What I've said - and I will repeat - is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices.

I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, "We don't torture," when the entire British - all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat.

And then the reason was that Churchill understood - you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what's - what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

And - and so I strongly believed that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term and make us safer over the long term because it will put us in a - in a position where we can still get information.

In some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy.
The case against torture is a simple and straightforward one:
  • Torture is clearly illegal
  • We are a nation of laws, not of men
  • Allowing torture to continue - or go unpunished - therefore begins to unravel the very framework of the United States.
It is vital that we show not only people like Michael Sheuer, but ourselves and the rest of the world - both our friends and our enemies - that we are better than torturers and criminals. For if we acquiesce to crimes committed in our names, that tolerance only makes us accomplices, and worse, brands us too weak to stand up for our nation.

Below is a pretty riveting video from - of all places - Playboy TV, that provides an excellent look at waterboarding and its effects.

April 24, 2009

Why Torture Is Not a "Policy Difference"

Much is being said and written about the contents of four newly released Bush White House torture policy memos, as well as President Obama's decision to make them public. President Bush's CIA Director and Attorney General, for instance, have taken the position that this action reveals the limits of American interrogation techniques, and will allow captured terrorists to better prepare themselves to withstand questioning while eliminating what they believe is a crucial tool for gathering intelligence. Others have attempted to diminish the severity of the "harsh methods" used against foreign prisoners, with performance artist Sean Hannity even volunteering to be waterboarded for charity.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that information uncovered through torture was invaluable in keeping the United States safe from another attack like 9/11. It was even revealed in a leaked internal staff memorandum - which right wing outlets like Fox News appeared to regard as validation - that President Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, believes precious data was collected through torture:
High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country...
The conclusion that one seems forced to draw from these inputs is that, however morally repugnant American torture policy might be, on balance, it is an effective tool that has been applied judiciously and successfully by people whose only goal was to protect American citizens from foreign threats.

Unfortunately for America's torture boosters, this argument is an utter sham.

First and foremost, President Ronald Reagan signed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Since the Senate ratified that treaty, the U.S. is not only subject to its strictures in international matters, but on home soil as well. In other words, it is against international law to torture, and it is against domestic, American law as well.

Second, it turns out that, according to an internal CIA report, Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah - the right wing's poster children for successful interrogation through torture - were waterboarded 183 and 82 times, respectively, in a one-month period. Better than any other, this single fact demonstrates that the idea that imminent peril - the so-called ticking time bomb scenario - justifies the use of extreme measures is completely untenable. As the excellent Marcy Wheeler wrote in the post that first broke this story:
The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed].
Further, experienced and successful investigators like Matthew Shephard, the man who led the team that found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi without resorting to torture, and veteran interrogators who pried intelligence from captured Nazis during World War II, have come out firmly and unequivocally against torture as both immoral and ineffective. Ali Soufan, the FBI field agent who headed the successful non-coercive questioning of Abu Zubaydah - before the CIA decided he should be waterboarded 82 times - concurs:
There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.


It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out. This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world’s foremost defenders of human rights. Just as important, releasing these memos enables us to begin the tricky process of finally bringing these terrorists to justice.
But is the value of information extracted through torture even relevant? Setting aside the informed opinions of men like Mr. Shephard and Mr. Soufani, - as well as the blatant illegality of torture under U.S. law - there is a universe of coercive measures that can be applied that will yield results in any number of situations. As Admiral Blair states, some valuable intelligence was gathered through torture. Why, then, stop with suspected terrorists?

Couldn't we better recover, say, a stolen bicycle by torturing the thief, or even an uncooperative witnesses? That's not justified? What if that bicycle belongs to a courier without health insurance who is the sole means of support for a sick relative? Without that bike, he can't earn money, and without money, someone will die. Surely in a life and death situation like this, a little "harsh interrogation" would produce crucial intelligence, right?

There is a reason that the example above is outside the consideration set of just about anyone with whom you would care to associate. Plainly speaking, there are lines we, as a society, through law and through moral code, have agreed not to cross. The torture of captives, no matter what their suspected crime, falls outside the bounds of legal activity. Until the presidency of George W. Bush, it also used to fall outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. As I wrote in Coordinated Subversion:
All of the methods listed in the ... report are widely considered cruel and inhumane, and the United States has, in fact, both court martialed American personnel who have engaged in waterboarding and prosecuted foreign perpetrators of the technique as war criminals. The only thing with which these techniques are "enhanced" is - at a minimum - criminal behavior, and at worst, outright torture.
As their position has become increasingly indefensible, torture apologists have turned their attention to the fact that some members of Congress - both Democrat and Republican - were briefed on the methods used for coercive interrogation, and approved them. There is legitimate debate about just how much these legislators knew or understood - they weren't allowed to keep printed material or take notes in these briefings, for instance - but the insinuation by those trumpeting this fact is that the release of the memos is some sort of political stunt by President Obama, and that if members of his own party are implicated, he will quash any inquiry driven by the "hard left wing."

Unfortunately for the GOP, this simply isn't so, and is a brilliant example of just how out of touch the contemporary Republican Party is with the public. A new Gallup Poll reveals that 62% of Americans want either a criminal or independent investigation into U.S. torture policies. The people want to know what was done in their name, they have a right to know, and if Democrats who allowed our former president to torture go down, too, then so be it.

The idea that bringing torturers to justice is some sort of fringe cause simply doesn't hold water. Torture strikes at the very heart of what it's supposed to mean to be an American, as wonderfully illustrated by an angry and empassioned Shepard Smith - the rare Fox News talking head with a conscience - in the video below. [Note: contains profanity.]

And that memo from Admiral Blair? It includes another passage; one that should be well-remembered:
The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.
That is exactly right.

April 19, 2009

The Tea Party Debacle

[Video courtesy of Crooks and Liars]

Tax Day came and went on Wednesday, but in addition to the usual rush of last minute filings, there was a new phenomenon: the Tea Party. Ostensibly a spontaneous, grassroots movement that sprang up to protest President Obama's plans to let the Bush tax cuts expire and return the highest marginal rate to where it was during the Clinton Administration, there is ample evidence that it is, in fact, part of an astroturf initiative fomented by an increasingly desperate Republican Party.

Just how ridiculous is the Tea Party movement? Well, to begin with, they nicknamed their form of protest - sending tea bags to members of Congress and the White House - "teabagging," an unfortunate choice given that the same term is slang for a sex act. Further, Texas Governor Rick Perry - who is making a strong case that George W. Bush is not, in fact, the stupidest man in recent memory to serve as the Lone Star State's chief executive - dropped an offhand comment that Texas retains the right to secede from the United States over issues such as taxation.

Beyond this, however, is the fact that the people participating appear to be incredibly ignorant, misguided, occasionally delusional, or some combination of all three. As Matt Taibbi puts it in a recent - and excellent - post:
... It’s amazing, literally amazing to me, that it wasn’t until Obama pushed through a package containing a massive public works package and significant homeowner aid that conservatives took to the streets. In other words, it wasn’t until taxes turned into construction jobs and mortgage relief that working and middle-class Americans decided to protest. I didn’t see anyone on the street when we forked over billions of dollars to help JP Morgan Chase buy Bear Stearns. And I didn’t see anyone on the street when Hank Paulson forked over $45 more billion to help Bank of America buy Merrill Lynch, a company run at the time by one of the world’s biggest assholes, John Thain. Moreover I didn’t see any street protests when the government agreed to soak up hundreds of billions in “troubled assets” from Citigroup, a company that just months later would lend out a jet furnished with pillows upholstered with Hermès scarves to former chief Sandy Weill so that he could vacation in Mexico over Christmas.
These are clearly people who not only know little of American history, but who can easily be talked into voting against their own interests. Further, their stated belief that President Obama is a socialist and/or a fascist with an unprecedented desire to tax that threatens capitalism, doesn't withstand even the briefest scrutiny, as the table below demonstrates. (Additional supporting data on top marginal tax rates can be found here.)

[Click image for larger view]

It doesn't stop there, though, as tax-related populist rabble-rousing is characterized by a set of talking points that seem to be repeated ad nauseum by the teabaggers, in one form or another:

1. President Obama will raise taxes on small businesses.
2. The estate tax devastates small businesses and family farms.
3. 40% of Americans pay no taxes
4. Tax cuts always increase revenue.
5. The GOP is the party of fiscal discipline.
6. Ronald Reagan was the greatest tax cutter of all time.
7. FDR caused the Great Depression, or at least made it worse.
8. Obama's cap-and-trade plan will cost each American family $3,100 a year.
9. Obama's tax proposals will undermine charitable giving.
10. The rich pay too much in taxes already.
John Perr breaks these statements down in detail over at PERRspectives, but suffice to say, each and every one of them is either an outright lie or a grotesque distortion.

Perhaps even more comical than the ineptitude and dishonesty surrounding the Tea Party "movement", however, is the fact that it has taken the greatest degree of its meager hold in states that traditionally support the Republican Party, and which have an almost universally undeserved image of themselves as self-reliant. It is these GOP strongholds that are the true welfare queens, taking in far more in federal money than they contribute, and in effect, living off of the hard work of the "liberal elite" states on the coasts.

The gnashing of teeth continues among movement conservatives can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future, and their rhetoric is likely to increase in its stridency. The political right wing has - as Jon Stewart put it - confused tyranny with losing.

There is a measure of joy in seeing the public begin to understand that the people who only ceased backing George W. Bush when it became completely untenable have always been the worst of fringe ideologues, and there is a very real chance that the Republican Party is essentially committing suicide with this foolishness. It's certainly possible that the Tea Party movement might represent the cornerstone of a revitalized, modern GOP with national support, but to me, it is far more likely that it is merely another brick in the wall separating today's Republican leadership from the average American, and it might even be a weight that drags the party from the national stage into the political oblivion of regional power.

April 14, 2009

The Blathering Storm

In the wake of the tragic passage of California's Proposition 8, which amended the state's constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal last November, there have been encouraging signs in other states that the fight to grant homosexual couples equal rights before the law is picking up steam.

In recent weeks, the Iowa state supreme court has struck down a law banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, and the Vermont legislature became the first to pass a law explicitly putting same-sex marriages on equal footing with those between a man and a woman, overriding a gubernatorial veto to do so. Meanwhile, word has leaked out that New York Governor David Paterson will introduce a bill to legalize homosexual matrimony.

Of course, even though James Dobson, the hard-right leader of the fundamentalist Focus on the Family has admitted losing the culture wars, all is nowhere near wine and roses for gay men and women who want to formalize their commitment to the partner of their choice and have it recognized before the law. An openly homosexual state senator in Iowa has received death threats, and an organization called the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has popped up to monger fear and sow intolerance on a national scale. (And while NOM may be somewhat hilariously inept at this point, it clearly has money behind it. As Californians learned to their chagrin with Prop 8, that's worth keeping in mind.)

Take a look at NOM's new video, ominously entitled "The Gathering Storm":

Personally, I think evaluating the effects of gay marriage on my home state of Massachusetts via this classic from The Daily Show - and yes, I know I posted it before in Poor Persecuted Persecutors, but it's just that good - should be mandatory for anyone who considers adding his name to NOM's mailing list:

After all, the rather pathetic arguments evinced in "The Gathering Storm" really make no more sense than the ones in this version:

Finally, as one might gather from the NOM video, there is a lot misinformation being disseminated about gay marriage, existing and proposed laws supporting it, and the "consequences" of same-sex matrimony. This final video is an excellent round-up of some of these issues and addresses specific examples that have been used to support the claims of groups like the National Organization for Marriage.

April 9, 2009

Either Cunning or Abusive

Matt Bors

[Click image to view original at full size.]

Readers of Sensen No Sen know that one of the subjects about which I write most frequently is civil liberties, and that within that topic, one of the issues that angers me most is the system of blatantly illegal, warrantless surveillance insituted by former President George W. Bush. Readers also know that, despite my dismay over his backing for the despicable law providing retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies supporting that program, I believe Barack Obama was the best candidate available in the 2008 presidential election, and I voted for him.

Since his inauguration, I think Mr. Obama has largely justified that confidence, performing at a level well beyond what we have seen in recent administrations, and doing so while confronting crises of nearly unprecedented scope and number. Within the realm of civil liberties, he has gotten many things right, issuing executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, suspend the mockery of justice that is the military commissions system, requiring that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) adhere to the Army Field Manual in its treatment of prisoners under interrogation, banning CIA secret prisons, and even limiting both his own power and that of former chief executives to withhold documents and other information through claims of secrecy.

With regard to the warrantless surveillance program, however, the contrast in Mr. Obama's policies could not be more stark. The White House has resisted all attempts to shutter the initiative or disclose information to individuals who may have been directly affected by what is the single largest corporate-powered, government-approved invasion of privacy in American history. Worse, in the ongoing lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the government, the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ) has not only relied on arguments used by the Bush Administration in defending illegal surveillance, it has actually taken an even more radical position in its efforts to have the litigation dismissed.

As the EFF's Tim Jones explains:
First, they argued, exactly as the Bush Administration did on countless occasions, that the state secrets privilege requires the court to dismiss the issue out of hand. They argue that simply allowing the case to continue "would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security." As in the past, this is a blatant ploy to dismiss the litigation without allowing the courts to consider the evidence.

It's an especially disappointing argument to hear from the Obama Administration. As a candidate, Senator Obama lamented that the Bush Administration "invoked a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court." He was right then, and we're dismayed that he and his team seem to have forgotten.

Sad as that is, it's the Department Of Justice's second argument that is the most pernicious. The DOJ claims that the U.S. Government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying — that the Government can never be sued for surveillance that violates federal privacy statutes.

This is a radical assertion that is utterly unprecedented. No one — not the White House, not the Justice Department, not any member of Congress, and not the Bush Administration — has ever interpreted the law this way.

Previously, the Bush Administration has argued that the U.S. possesses "sovereign immunity" from suit for conducting electronic surveillance that violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). However, FISA is only one of several laws that restrict the government's ability to wiretap. The Obama Administration goes two steps further than Bush did, and claims that the USA PATRIOT Act also renders the U.S. immune from suit under the two remaining key federal surveillance laws: the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act. Essentially,
the Obama Adminstration has claimed that the government cannot be held accountable for illegal surveillance under any federal statutes. [Emphasis mine.]
As awful - and accurate - as that evaluation is, is it possible that the president has other legitimate concerns? After all, Mr. Obama has a stated preference for looking to the future, and he may be continuing to seek opportunities to increase bipartisanship by publicly acknowledging one of the Right's favorite arguments, that one shouldn't "criminalize policy differences." Likewise, in times that require the support and effectiveness of the intelligence community, is he, perhaps, trying to make it clear to personnel at the National Security Agency (NSA) that he won't pursue criminal action against individuals who were doing their jobs on the basis of what they were told was sound legal theory?

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate knocks these arguments down:
The fundamental mistake underpinning all the thinking above is that openness about past errors leads inexorably to ugliness, politicization, and rancor. But it's worth recalling for a moment that we are already knee-deep in ugliness, politicization, and rancor. Transparency is not necessarily the first step toward indiscriminate prosecutions of everyone who ever worked for President Bush. It doesn't mean that from now until forever, each administration will criminalize the policy differences of the administration before. It doesn't mean that all mistakes are war crimes, or that hereinafter all investigations are all "perjury traps." That's the kind of binary, good/evil thinking we were supposed to have left behind us last November.
But here is where things get interesting, and potentially hold out some hope for those of us who condemned President Bush as someone who wiped his feet on the Constitution and supported Mr. Obama. Take a look at the clip below from MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:

In the video, Howard Fineman notes that President Obama desperately needs the intelligence community's backing, and Jonathan Turley states that the administration's position is so extreme that it essentially creates a situation in which a Constitutional right is stripped of legal protection, something which has never been allowed to stand before. While both men agree with host Keith Olbermann that the White House's policy moves on this issue are appalling, I am struck by the fact that they do not synthesize these points into a single discussion.

This is important because it raises the possibility that there is another explanation for President Obama's stance on the issue of illegal surveillance. Barack Obama has taught Constitutional law, and his current, extreme position on illegal surveillance is greatly at odds with other actions he has taken, such as the executive orders mentioned above. If he believes himself to be on shaky ground with the intelligence community, he would not want to be seen as leading any effort that might embarrass or prosecute its members. On the other hand, as Mr. Olbermann points out, one of the president's core constituencies is made up of people like myself who saw President Bush riding roughshod over the nation's founding principles. What to do?

The most obvious way for the president to extricate himself from this situation would be to pursue two tactics simultaneously: First, take a very public stance that not only equals Mr. Bush's, but exceeds it, in order to give comfort to the intelligence community; And two, make his position so radical and outrageous that Congress, the courts, or both are forced to respond in a manner that rolls back this policy. If this is what the president is doing - and it works - then the warrantless surveillance program gets shut down and investigated, the intelligence community sees him as watching their back, and since he has performed admirably in most other policy areas, his supporters forgive him by the time the 2012 election comes around.

All that being said, I have no evidence whatsoever to support this contention, but Barack Obama and his team have shown a capacity for byzantine maneuvering, their successful labeling of Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican Party being a recent example. Further, the president's position on the illegal surveillance program is so inconsistent with his other efforts in the realm of civil liberties - as well as statements he made during his campaign - that this explanation has to at least be considered plausible.

From my personal position, however, it is more likely that Mr. Obama is determined, for whatever reason, to keep and extend the powers arrogated to his office by the man who preceded him. During his campaign, he supported retroactive immunity for law-breaking telecommunications companies, and there was no reason for him to do so. The bill would have become law without his vote in the Senate, and the rigorous schedule of the campaign trail provided him with a ready excuse to be absent when the vote was held, and thereby avoid the anger he stirred up among his supporters.

The president is either pursuing a genuinely cunning strategy, which is possible but less likely, or in this instance, he is abusing his office every bit as badly as George W. Bush did when he was in power. In either case, and whatever the reasons behind it, Mr. Obama's current position on the warrantless surveillance program should be condemned, and its remedy will almost certainly have to come from the legislature and the judiciary. I'm hoping that is President Obama's plan as well, but it would be incredibly foolish to count on it.

April 4, 2009

Free the Bound Periodicals!

[Map of troubled newspapers. Click to view original at full size]
As the ongoing global recession has made the American public increasingly aware, rampant deregulation is not necessarily a good thing. It's not that free markets don't work - they do - it's that the human cost of corrections in those markets is often terrible.

Underpinning the last decade's worth of the policies that have brought the world to its financial knees - but only recently becoming visible to most people - is the sad state of our national press, which, through calculated deregulation has been subsumed by increasingly concentrated corporate interests. A vigorous Fourth Estate, the existence of which is crucial to the ability of voters to make informed decisions, simply does not exist today. Instead, in an age when media is so much more pervasive than it has ever been during the course of human history, we are drowning in a sea of mediocrity and outright propaganda in support of policies like the invasion of Iraq. There is still quality news to be had if one knows where to look, but overall, we are only vaguely served by companies driven by the bottom line to the exclusion of all else, including journalistic integrity.

The prime exemplar of this deeply worrisome trend is the newspaper industry, which has seen incredible consolidation in recent years. Today, just nine corporations own 341 of the nation's newspapers - the Gannet Company alone owns 102 - and local reporting has deteriorated commensurately as economies of scale demand that these conglomerates share resources among their properties to reduce costs. This diminished relevance and diversity - along with the industry's failure to adapt to the internet age - has led to lower revenues from readers no longer willing to pay for information they can get for free on the web, and as a result, to both sweeping layoffs and bankruptcies, as well as the outright closure of major newspapers. (See graphic at top.)

Worse, a recent study by the Pew Research Center indicates that less than half of those surveyed believe that the loss of their local paper would damage civic life. This is short-sighted, as Mike McGrail writes over at Checkmate:
Newspapers are the foundation of an informed society – its first witness. Newspapers are low tech on the front end (reporters only need a notebook and a 39-cent felt tip to cover a story) so they can commit reporters to stories that other media can’t. Newspaper reporters can sit through four-hour zoning board meetings to make sure the local Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t expand its parking lot onto a wetland. They can dig through decades of court records to reveal sexual abuse by clergymen across the country. By comparison, video crews can’t be idle for that long, and bloggers are usually one-person shops who can only cover a limited amount of stories at once.

Newspaper reporting, for all its oft-mentioned flaws, is the photosynthesis of the news ecosystem; it feeds everything above it. Broadcast and cable follow up newspaper articles with their own reports, bringing the news to a broader audience. Bloggers comment and contribute their own knowledge, correcting and expanding on stories that they would probably have missed if they hadn’t read it in a newspaper. The news ecosystem will not collapse without newspapers, but there’s no way it will uncover important new stories at the pace it does now. That’s not good for society. Fear of exposure is a powerful motivator for governments, businesses and individual to mind their manners. Newspapers have historically done most of the watching and scolding.
So what can be done?

One of the answers lies in more tightly regulating the number of media outlets that can be owned by a single entity in a given market. These rules, which have been relaxed in recent years have driven the consolidation we now see. True, they allowed some owners to rid themselves of unprofitable papers, but in the main, these were profitable media outlets before they were absorbed by the conglomerates of today. Forcing divestiture would make newly independent papers more beholden to their communities - and therefore more relevant - while freeing them from the constraints of the large corporate structures in which they presently wither. Agile, entrepreneurial and profitable print journalism is not an oxymoron; it just requires the right people and the right environment in order to flourish.

Saving newspapers is not only worth doing, it is vital to the political recovery of a United States riven by eight years of George W. Bush, who was ably abetted by a largely compliant - if not abjectly conspiratorial - press corps. Sir Francis Bacon wrote more than 400 years ago that "Knowledge is power." He was right then, and he remains so today.

Alternatively, of course, there is always this alternative solution from Matt Bors...